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Tianjin Tianhou Palace and religious practice in the PRC

This week as I wait somewhat patiently for my email to load, I’ve been walking the streets of

Tianjin. One of the first places I wandered was to the Tianjin Tianhou Palace (天津天后宫), a temple located near Tianjin’s Antique Street (古文化街). The Antique Street is similar to dozens of other souvenir/faux brand markets around the Middle Kingdom but does offer the advantage of being a lot more laid back than Panjiayuan and a lot less pricy than Liulichang in Beijing. The relative absence of foreign tourists (I saw two the whole afternoon) means the yelling/grabbing sales approach is nearly nonexistent making for a pleasant shopping experience.

The Tianhou complex itself was originally constructed in the Yuan dynasty (1326 CE) and got an overhaul early in the Ming dynasty but most of the existing structures date back only to a 1985 major renovation of the place. Few of the original buildings had survived intact to the 20th century and those that did suffered a grim fate during the GPCR. Despite its condition, the temple played an important role in the social and spiritual life of Tianjin even into the PRC era. Scholars of Chinese religion might find it interesting that in Tianjin “Tianhou” is conflated with Mazu 妈祖, a spirit of the sea worshipped in China’s southeastern coast and on Taiwan. In the temple itself, she is referred to in places as Mazu as well as Tianhou.

In the 1950s, parents brought babies to the temple to be blessed for health and success in school. After the initial visit, children would be forbidden to set foot back into the temple for another 12 years. At that time they had another ceremony, the transition to adulthood symbolized by their being allowed to step back over the threshold of the temple.

The 1980s restoration was faithful to the original architecture and the usual annoyances (loudspeakers, souvenir shops) were kept out.Part of that may be because the temple itself still receives quite a bit of its intended use.The ceremony of adulthood is no longer practiced, but like many Chinese temples, this one is filled every day with local residents burning incense and praying to the various gods and goddesses for wealth, health, wealth, long life, wealth, academic success, wealth, and, oh yes…prosperity and wealth.

Coming to a country that waged the good fight against ‘feudal traditions’ for nearly thirty years, the religiosity of Chinese today can be startling.YJ suggests it’s not really an expression of faith, rather a kind of spiritual opportunism; in today’s competitive China, every little bit of help, divine or otherwise, can’t hurt.I’m not so sure.I can’t say for certain if the last 20 years have brought about a religious “revival” or if the CCP’s elimination of ‘feudal superstitions’ was not nearly as complete as they once thought.It would certainly be consistent with Chinese history that in a period of economic prosperity and social mobility (both upward and downward) that interest in religion would grow.That said, I’m neither an anthropologist nor as current in Chinese religious practices as I should be so I’m curious in other people’s views on the subject.

5 Comments on Tianjin Tianhou Palace and religious practice in the PRC

  1. I wonder if it is more of a revival, at least in the sense that public demonstrations of religious faith were fairly widely suppressed for at least the twenty years between 1959 and 1979.

  2. 無名 - wu ming // January 25, 2007 at 1:00 pm //

    i’m kind of surprised to see a tian hou temple so far north, and astounded that it doesn’t have a souveneir shop. hard to believe such places exist anymore.

    tian hou (cantonese tin hau) and mazu have been linked for a long time (watson’s article standardizing the gods is a good source for all things mazu), going back to – as all things do – the song. heh.

    N is surprised that the tianjin tian hou is also connected to the queen mother of the west, although i suppose there’s no figure too distant to not be open to being syncretically tied to anyone else in chinese religion.

  3. 花崗齋之愚公 // January 25, 2007 at 6:09 pm //

    Wu Ming,

    I defer to N. on matters of Chinese religious practice so I double-checked and it turns out she was right. When discussing the temple with some people here, the name Wang Mu Niang Niang came up but not in relation to Tianhou/Mazu at the temple.

  4. 花崗齋之愚公 // January 25, 2007 at 6:13 pm //


    Thanks for stopping by. This was my sense too but I am still impressed by the level of devotion. Today we went at dawn to another temple as today is a Buddhist holiday and despite temps well below freezing, the faithful were out in force.

  5. @J: If you want to see some real Mazu, Guanyin/Avalokitesvara and various Marshall Lords, Earth God, Kitchen God, etc. etc. etc. worship, come on down to Quanzhou. We have a Tianhou Temple as well, plus about a gazillion others. 90% of shops, factories and offices have a tudiguan. There are literally thousands of small shrines and temples scattered through the alleyways.

    The government has spent decades trying to eliminate superstitious practices, with news articles like “crack down on superstition saves 300 million RMB” (which makes no sense to me, since that money would have been spent in the local economy). Meanwhile I’ve heard alot of local authorities feng shui their office and attend all the big ceremonies.

    For a good article on it, Wang Mingming has an English article in a new book called “Southern Fujian” from CUHK.

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