Ep. 033: Tracking Tianhou Temples in Nanshan, Shenzhen

The Goddess of the Sea in my Chinese "Hometown"

For over a decade, I made my home in the Chinese boomtown of Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong. And for virtually all of that time (except for the year I lived in a Buddhist temple in Jiangsu Province) I taught at a college in the very northern portion of Nanshan, at that time the largest (by more than double) of the four districts within Shenzhen's "Special Economic Zone." (The SEZ was an experiment in capitalism that has since been expanded to cover the whole city. In my day there were six districts, four "inside" and two "outside"; the latter have now been further divided so that there are a total of nine districts, all "inside.")

The main hall of the Tianhou "Palace" at Chiwan, Nanshan, Shenzhen

Nanshan is an area of great historic significance, both ancient and modern. It was at one time the county seat of an area that embraced virtually all of modern Shenzhen, Hong Kong to the south, and Dongguan to the north. The area fell from prominence during something called "The Great Clearance," a most amazing event.

Here's what happened. Early in the Qing Dynasty there arose a pirate properly named Zheng Chenggong, though we usually call him "Koxinga." Loyal to the ousted Ming, he caused the Qing no end of trouble. So effective was he that in 1661 the Qing issued the first of several edicts that evacuated the coastal areas of the provinces all the way from Guangdong--where Shenzhen is located--up to Shandong, just south of Beijing.

Everyplace up to around 16 miles (at first) was to be cleared of its population. Imagine! Some 16,000 people were driven inland from the Shenzhen/Hong Kong area. The purpose was similar to that of a "scorched earth" policy: With no populace or product, there was nothing that could be requisitioned to support the pirates' cause.

The Sun and Moon ponds at the bottom of the temple yard (representing Yang and Yin) sadly are no longer there.

After 1669 the order was rescinded at the insistence of local governors, and people began to trickle back in, though the evacuation was reinstated from 1679 to 1683. The area never fully recovered after that. But then rural Hong Kong began to develop in the 1850s, when it was taken over by the British after the Opium Wars with the Qing. But Shenzhen remained asleep.

Until the 1980s, that is, when Deng Xiaoping declared that "to get rich is glorious" and instituted a zone practicing "socialism with Chinese characteristics"--that is, capitalism--and the boom began. In Shekou, as it happens, in the southern part of Nanshan.

Tracking Down Temples

The Drum and Bell Towers and the Gate at the Chiwan temple

When I lived in Shenzhen and worked at the college, my schedule seldom kept me in the classroom more than four mornings a week, with little prep or follow-up to do. With plenty of time on my hands, then, I turned to my favorite pastime: temple crawling.

I had been told repeatedly that there was "only one temple" in Shenzhen, the huge Hongfa Buddhist Temple located in a botanical garden at the other end of the city.

That was not true. I have rooted out dozens, and in this episode I'll introduce you to a few of the ones I found in Nanshan. These are decidedly not Buddhist temples, but some of them display Buddhist features. This requires a little background in the "four jiao."

The Three Jiao--plus One

It is widely reported that China has three traditional jiao, or "teachings"--meaning religions.

This folk temple's gate features ornately "carved" (poured concrete) dragons

Rujiao--Confucianism--is the well-known system originating with the teachings of Kong Fu Zi, or Confucius. It is more philosophy than religion, and focuses on the development of a righteous person and a humanitarian way of governing society. The "Ru" in its name is simply a word that means "Confucian scholar."

Daojiao is Daoism, transliterated these days with a "d," but formerly with a "t," so it's often pronounced by the unknowing as "Taoism." (It's a long story.) Founded by the perhaps-legendary Laozi, which simply means "Old Boy," it, like Confucianism, is not so much a heaven-focused religion, but rather a way (the meaning of dao) of being in the world.

Fojiao is Buddhism, which I don't think I have to describe to you. Fo means "Buddha." Notice that in many forms it, too, lacks an object of worship, but is rather centered on self-improvement.

What I've described here are the "pure," philosophical, forms of these teachings. But at street level, they have become blended together, and popular practices such as ancestor worship, propitiation of spirits, and summoning of "luck" have crept in. This is the fourth jiao, and in fact the one more commonly found than the others.

A tree planted in thanksgiving by Ming admiral-eunuch Zheng He (or, more likely, a descendant of that tree). The red tags are wishes/prayers.

In my first year in China, I wrote this: "Luck. To the Chinese it's like water to fish: the element in which they live, move, and have their being, as unexamined and taken-for-granted as the air we breathe. ... Luck is so important to the Chinese that it has been institutionalized; in Hong Kong, instead of run-off elections, close races are decided by lottery. Luck knows best."

And that is the ultimate goal of all of the teachings, as far as the everyday Chinese person is concerned. A temple is primarily a luck factory.

Tianhou, Goddess of the Sea

While Buddhism focuses on Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, the many folk/Dao temples in China do not hesitate to call their denizens "gods" and "goddesses." It does no good to try to tease out a god's "jiao" affiliations--is he Confucian? Is she Daoist? Just go with it.

These incense coils burn for 14 or 28 days (depending on the size), either a half or a full lunar month.

The first non-Buddhist deity I ever met in China sits in the first non-Buddhist temple I ever visited in China, as well as in several smaller ones in Shenzhen. That first temple also happens to be the largest temple in Nanshan--and in fact, the largest of its type in all of Guangdong Province. This is the Tianhou Temple (actually "Palace," a common designation for large folk/Daoist temples) at Chiwan, on Nanshan's southern coast.

While the name Tianhou actually means "Empress of Heaven," this is a "posthumous" title conferred by an emperor in 1683. She is better known as Mazu ("Maternal Ancestor"), a name which through a misunderstanding came to be applied to Macau, where there is a major Mazu temple. Some Portuguese visitors pointed toward the temple and, meaning to ask the name of the city, asked, "What is that place called?" The answer they got, "Mazu's place," was thenceforth applied by foreigners to the city that locals call Aomen, or "Gateway to the Bay."

The "A-Ma" (Mazu, Tianhou) Temple at Macau

As for the goddess herself: She is said to have been one Lin Moniang, a late-tenth-century young woman from Fujian Province who is revered by seafarers of all kinds, especially fishermen and sailors. Legend (of which there are many) says she was born into a family of fisherfolk, and at age 16 miraculously saved her father and brother(s) from drowning during a storm. She died unwed at 27 (28 Chinese-style), though some say she died at 16 from exhaustion after saving her male family members by remote control.

You’ll find her temples wherever you find communities of sea-going Chinese. (There's one a few hours north of us here in the Philippines, inspired by the gratitude of stranded Taiwanese fishermen.)

The Tianhou Palace at Chiwan

Tianhou behind the veil; note the generals in front

The temple at Chiwan dates back to the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), but it was really "put on the map" by the Ming admiral-eunuch Zheng He. They say that in the early 15th century, Zheng's fleet encountered a storm in the nearby Pearl River Delta, and Tianhou saved them. Zheng had a tree planted at the temple in thanksgiving (and it's still there!); people today tie wishes on red tags onto the tree. Tianhou then appeared to the emperor and told him to build (or enlarge) her temple at Chiwan, though a more prosaic version says that Zheng himself initiated this appeal.

When you visit today, there are several eye-catching attractions. Sun and Moon ponds (representing Yin and Yang) stand at the south end of the grounds; the sea used to be just beyond the wall, where a freight yard now lies. [The last time I visited, these ponds were gone.] Two or three halls in the area house small museums. Just north of the [now non-existent] ponds are the quaint bell and drum towers, and the main gate with its ornate dragon-bedecked columns. Model boats are parked in the gate, reflecting Tianhou's assistance to sailors and fishermen; and rooms just inside the gate hold statues of deities donated by those who could no longer house them.

The generals "Thousand League Eyes" and "Favorable Wind Ears"

The central courtyard features a large turtle pond; an incense pavilion, where 14- and 28-day coils of incense are burned for the ancestors; a well, which legend says is inhabited by the spirit of a young boy who drowned in it; and the aforementioned "wishing" tree, under which rests a small shrine to Tu Di, the genius loci or "spirit of the place" (often erroneously called ""The Earth God").

Also in the courtyard are two tall incinerators where visitors burn "donations" to the dead--"ghost money," grave goods, and whatnot. The incinerators are decorated with panels bearing beautiful images of the Eight Immortals on the two lateral front panels (we saw them in Episode 023!), and a dragon and a phoenix on the back panels.

Finally, in the main hall, we see the great Lady herself with her various attendants, including the demon-faced generals who can see and hear a great distance. There is a statue of Guanyin to the right of the altar (here considered a "Goddess of Mercy" rather than a "Bodhisattva of Compassion"), and a statue of Cai Shen, God of Wealth, is on the left. Also, on the side walls are exquisite paintings of the Eighteen Arhats, usually associated with Buddhism. And Tianhou's bed and washstand, used during her birthday ceremonies, sit in a corner.

Paintings of the Eighteen Arhats line the interior walls of the temple.

Now, about those generals, who are found in most Tianhou temples: Qianliyan ("Thousand League Eyes") is a green ogre-ish guy usually standing on the Goddess's left (our right), shading his eyes; he can see far. Shunfeng'er ("Favorable Wind Ears") is red or brown, stands on the other side, and cups his ear; he can hear far. (Colors and positions may vary from temple to temple; they're best identified by their gestures.) Both attend to Tianhou and help her rescue fishermen and sailors, but it was not always so.

Legend says they were the ruthless generals Gao Ming and Gao Jue, treacherous brothers in the Shang Dynasty. Having died in a battle on Peach Blossom Mountain, they remained and haunted the place. Tianhou (Mazu) passed through there one day, and the brothers began to vie for her affection. To get rid of them, Tianhou gave them this challenge: she would fight them, and, if they won, she would marry one of them. But if she won, they would have to serve her forever. She won, and they serve her still, looking and listening for those who need her help.

A visitor prays by shaking chim. When a numbered stick falls out, the attendants give (sell) the appropriate fortune on a piece of paper.

Now, here's something you won't see in most Buddhist temples. This temple features several ways to get your fortune told. First, there are chim, bamboo sticks marked with numbers. You shake the can they're in until one falls out; an attendant gives you a slip of paper (for a price) with the corresponding number that tells you your fortune (alas, only in Chinese). Also, there are two "moon blocks," crescent-shaped pieces of wood that are thrown on the table for divining "yes" or "no." In some temples, two "sames" (both blocks landing with the rounded side up, or both down) mean "yes," and two "differents" (one up, one down) mean "no." In other temples, this is reversed. Check before making any decisions based on this! Finally, there is a priest (fortune teller) available, usually on weekends, for consultation, especially on matters of luck. You can also purchase offerings to the goddess or the ancestors--incense, oil, paper goods for burning, etc.--at the side counters.

The priest-on-duty


Tianhou is by far the most popular Dao/folk deity in the coastal regions of China, and Nanshan is no exception. Let me mention a few more of her temples in the area.

The Chiwan temple sits very close to Chiwan Bay at Shekou, with just a shipping operation separating the temple from the sea. If you work your way around the nearby Xiao Nanshan ("Little South Mountain," next to the larger mountain for which the district is named) you can climb a whole bunch o' steps and reach an ancient temple dedicated to Mazu. The view of Mawan Bay from there is spectacular.

The Mazu Temple near the Chiwan Palace has a whole lot o' stairs.

Three more Tianhou temples, each comprising basically a single hall with a small courtyard, are scattered around the southern part of the district.

The interior of the Mawan temple differs greatly from the one at Chiwan. (Note the dog under the altar!)


A little over half a mile to the west of the big Tianhou Palace at Chiwan is a little-known tomb belonging to the "Last of the Song Emperors." (Sort of.) His story is a sad one.

Tomb of the Boy Emperor, Chiwan

In brief, the Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty were "sweeping up" after defeating the last real Song emperor, Zhao Qi, known as Duzong. That last emperor was the father of three young boys who technically (but not effectively) succeeded him before the Yuan solidified their power. His son Zhao Xian, the last seated Song emperor was captured and deposed (at age 6!) in 1276 by the Mongols. Members of his court fled to south China along with his two brothers. One of these, Zhao Shi (aged 9), was declared Emperor Duanzong, but he died after only two years, in 1278, in what is now Hong Kong. His protector Hou Wong, is still revered as a god there.

A legend about this boy (also called Song Di Zheng) gave the Kowloon District of Hong Kong its name. There was a belief that the young Emperor would be safe if he were sheltered in a place with "nine dragons" (which is a common motif in Chinese folklore). Kowloon is surrounded by eight mountains, understood to be dragons in geomancy. When the young emperor pointed out that they were minus one hill, his retainers optimistically informed him that he was Dragon Number Nine. Turns out they were wrong. I read somewhere he died of the flu, but I can’t prove it. Anyway, "Kowloon" is an English transcription of the name they gave the place, which means "Nine Dragons" (in Mandarin Chinese, Jiu Long).

Zhao Shi's younger brother Zhao Bing then became the last Song emperor. When the Song fleet was about to be defeated at the Battle of Yamen (in the Pearl River near Guangzhou), the loyal Prime Minister of the Left, Lu Xiufu, leapt into the sea holding the boy emperor, ending his and the boy's life, as well as the Song dynasty's struggle against the Yuan. Many members of the court did the same.

Local legend takes over from here: a little body washed up on the shore, wearing the yellow dragon-embroidered robes of an emperor. At the same moment, a board fell from the interior of the nearby Tianhou Palace. Devotees who recovered the body prayed at the temple to find out what to do with it. The goddess Tianhou answered through a medium that the fallen board had been "given" to make a casket, and that the boy was to be entombed nearby--today, a fifteen-minute walk west of the temple.

Now, remember the faithful retainer Hou Wong, who accompanied the boy emperor who died in Hong Kong? His real name was Yang Liang Jie; Hou Wang is an honorary title. They say that, despite his own poor health, Yang stayed behind after the death of Zhao Shi to ensure Zhao Bing's escape. He thus became a local hero, and there are at least eleven temples dedicated to him in Hong Kong.

An enormous tree stands outside the Hou Wang Temple in Xiangnan Village, Nanshan

And at least two in Shenzhen, quite near each other. The larger and more interesting is in Xiangnan Village in Nanshan, where a large tree spreads out just west of the gate. Two more ancient ficus trees, 100 and 300 years old respectively, stand on the grounds. The temple interior is pleasant enough, with Hou Wang flanked by several other deities.

Back to the west, and a little south on Qianhai Road, is the front of another small Hou Wang temple. You'll need to go around the back and seek entry to a building compound to enter this one; only die-hard temple fans (like moi) would find it worthwhile.


Well, that's about it. We'll return to Shenzhen another time to take a look at some of the smaller temples featuring a variety of unusual gods and goddesses.

Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!

Subscribers to the Newsletter will see Questions at this point, and be invited to join the conversation in a "secret group" on Facebook. (Of course, if you don't use Facebook--sorry!) Want to get in on some of that? Hit that Subscribe button and send me your email!


You may unsubscribe to Temple Tales at any time by simply replying to this Newsletter and writing "Unsubscribe." You will receive one more letter as confirmation.

If you have any problems reading the Newsletter or accessing the Podcast, please write to me at TheTempleGuy@GMail.com, and I'll help you in any way I can!

In the next episode: It's Dharma Day! Let's examine the proper etiquette for visiting a temple, and learn how to behave more like a pilgrim than a tourist!