Some people say Shenzhen has no soul.
The mega-city of 10 million sits on the Chinese mainland next to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Before Deng Xiaoping made Shenzhen a Special Economic Zone in 1979, the city was a mere fishing village of a 300,000. The People’s Liberation Army engineering core came to the site of what was to become a Chinese industrial boomtown and built it from the ground up.
Shenzhen is seen by many as Hong Kong’s bastard sister, better hidden from view than openly visited, a lifeless, planned city without history or soul. That’s a broad generalization. Yes, modern Shenzhen is 27 years old, but its history dates back millennia, like the rest of China.
In the Nanshan District is the small town of Chiwan. Now an industrial port, the area holds an important folk relic. The Tianhou Temple was first built in 1410. Tianhou, commonly called Matsu, is considered the Mother of Heaven. She is also the Goddess of the Sea and worshipped by sailors and fishermen across south-east Asia.
Tianhou was reportedly born in 960 AD on an island off the coast of China. Her family fished the sea, and she was an excellent swimmer. One of the miracles attached to the future-goddess was saving her brother from drowning during a typhoon. She held him out of the water while she was at home, in a trace. Legends say she either died searching for her father’s body, who was killed in the storm, or flew from a mountain top to join the gods. Her fame spread, and there are more than 1500 temples dedicated to her in 26 countries.
Legendary Chinese explorer Admiral Zheng He, the temple legend states, encountered a fierce storm in the Pearl River Delta area, near Chiwan, as he was about to start his famous exploration mission in 1410. Tianhou appeared to Chinese emperor Zhu Di and told him she had saved the expedition, and the emperor was to build a temple to show his appreciation. The temple was built and a wish-giving tree was planted in the courtyard by Admiral Zheng.
Over the centuries the temple has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. The Shenzhen government refurbished the temple during the 1980s. The site features a large statue of Tianhou, standing between two ponds, representing the sun and moon, or the ying and yang.
Inside the gates of the temple proper are the incinerators for ghost money, the incense pavilion, and the wishing-giving tree planted in 1410 by Admiral Zheng. The main hall of the temple is dominated by a statue of Tianhou, and her generals Chien Li Yen and Shun Feng Er. A fortune teller is on hand, as is a merchant selling offerings that can be left on the tables outside the temple.
The temple is active with worshippers, the curious and some tourists. The yearly festival, held in March, is attended by thousands.
Getting to Chiwan and the Tianhou Temple is easy. Take bus 224 from the Nanshan area to the temple gates.
The nearly 600-year-old temple offers a quiet place to look at the past, and reflect in a sometimes crazy boomtown.
Written and photography by Steve Peer