The use of folklore as a mode of storytelling, religious worship, and even source of comfort in times of crisis can be found in different cultures and societies across continents. Often, the social, cultural, and political contexts from which these stories originate may be overshadowed by our pursuit for spirituality and the divine. Mazu, a notable figure in traditional Chinese folklore who is celebrated and worshipped by many as the goddess and protector of the seas, bears great socio-cultural significance in ancient China as well as in modern times.
Through the power of visual and literary narrative, The Legend of Mazu presents an illustrated anthology of the ancient Chinese myth of Mazu, her personal life, and origins. Paying homage to the goddess as a cultural and historic figure, the book chronicles the story of Lin Mo, a mortal girl born in Meizhou Island in Putian District, China, who displayed unrivalled intelligence for the classics and compassion for her villagers from a young age. Gaining various extraordinary abilities and spiritual powers throughout her life, she sought to protect her people from natural disasters and evil demons, leading to her ascent into immortality and earning her the name Mazu.
Today, Mazu is most commonly recognised in religious spheres and schools of thought, sanctioned and worshipped as a deity in several different faiths, such as Buddhism and Taoism. Yet, her elaborate journey from childhood to immortality offers insight and realism into the history and culture of coastal life in ancient China. The Legend of Mazu uncovers what lies behind the heavily embellished garments and accessories adorned by images of the goddess seen in religious imagery and artefacts today – a bright and courageous girl from an ordinary village who eventually grew to become a renown and celebrated goddess. As a female deity, Mazu’s popularity and prestige has shaped women’s socio-political status and power in parts of Asia. Revered for both her intellect and physical prowess, the goddess’s tale brings an alternative perspective and feminist touch to the notions of power and conquest in classical Chinese folklore and traditions.
While Mazu’s story stems from folklore in the Song Dynasty in China, it remains relevant in contemporary society in socio-cultural contexts of identity, sea travel, and diaspora. Immigration through the ages had allowed the spread of Mazu worship across Asia and later to parts of Europe, America, and Australia, with worshippers adapting their religious practices to suit the different customs and identities of the specific societies and communities that they had settled amongst. Such phenomenon is a reflection of the effect of sea travel and cultural exchange that began centuries ago, building many heterogeneous and multicultural societies like Singapore.
With the retelling of a classic that is widely-known in Asian culture, the artist and writer Koh Chin Tong had to ensure that his representation of the goddess was sufficiently comprehensive and accurate to historical records, while at the same time conveying her narrative in a universal manner for audiences of all backgrounds and cultures to relate to. This required a significant period of intensive study of classical Chinese history and folklore on his part. The result is a fantastical and enchanting work of art and conservation piece on the goddess of the sea.
In the midst of global change and crises, one can look to The Legend of Mazu, a chronicle of the mythical goddess and symbol of conquest and enlightenment that has withstood the test of time.
Pick up your very own copy of The Legend of Mazu comic book here.