Religions of China
Macau is a rich repository of Chinese culture, preserving the classic architecture of traditional temples, and offering an insight into the beliefs and practices of religions which have been adopted over the centuries and are still widely observed in Macau.
These religions combine a fabulous folklore, a code of morals and a very pragmatic system for dealing with the problems and puzzles of life. The underlying belief is that reward and punishment here and in the hereafter depend on a person's behaviour, devotion to the gods and respect for the souls of his ancestors, who share a spirit world with dragons, serpents and witches.
China's earliest deities were mythical creatures which controlled nature. Two formalised religious appeared a century or so before the Christian era. From India came Buddhism with its promise of enlightenment through prayer and good deeds. At the same time the legendary Chinese teacher Lao-tzu introduced Taoism in which brave and virtuous humans became gods with magic powers to help mankind. Both religious preach the sanctity of life (many devotees are vegetarians), reverence for the gods, filial piety and harmony with nature.
There is no jealousy between the gods and the Chinese believe in taking advantage of all possible divine power. As a result almost all temples in Macau (as in traditionalist China) are miu, where a combination of Buddhist, Taoist and Animist gods are worshipped.
Gods and Goddesses
The central figure of Buddhism is Sakyamuni, who achieved nirvana through meditation. He is often worshipped as one of the Three Precious Buddhas, along with Amitabha, Lord of the Western Paradise and the Healing Buddha. Other deities are Bodhisatva or Pusa who achieved nirvana but chose to serve humanity. The best loved is the Goddess of Mercy, Kwan Yin, known in Macau as Kun Iam.
Taoism has gods for every possible need and occasion. Most were deified for their great virtues or miraculous powers when on earth. In Macau the most popular is the Goddess of Seafarers, Tin Hau, or A-Ma as she is often called. She is said to have been a poor girl from Fujian who had power to save fishermen from storms. Another favourite is Kwan Tai, also known as Kwan Kung or Mo, a scholar and warrior who became God of Riches, Literature, War and Pawnshops. (Many police stations keep a shrine dedicated to him). Other deities are worshipped by girls seeking husbands, women wanting children, students taking exams, gamblers, invalids, etc.
In many temples two large statues stand on either side of the main altar. They are the legendary guardians: axe-carrying Thousand-Li Eye, who can see to infinity, and club-wielding Favourable-Wind Ear, who can hear everything. In addition temples often have shelves filled with the 60 tai sui, gods in charge of each year of the Chinese calendar. The worshipper makes offerings to the god of the year he was born in.
Also throughout Macau there are small shrines with characters bearing the god's name found in homes, restaurants and shops, while stones inscribed to district gods occupy many streets corners.
All temples are built on the most favourable site according to Fung shui, a geomantic system followed by even the most sophisticated Chinese. Ideally - and usually in Macau - the buildings face the sea or a broad valley and back onto a hill, which is home for potentially dangerous dragons.
Architecturally the roof is a dominant feature. It is usually of green or yellow rounded tiles and steeply raked. The ridgepole is decorated with porcelain figures of divinities and lucky symbols such as dragons and carp. Eaves are usually richly adorned with colorful wooden carvings or clay friezes. Stone lions often guard the door.
Inside is a small courtyard with a large bowl where incense and paper offerings are burnt. Beyond is the main hall with an altar table, often with an intricately carved front, on which are the Five Ritual Vessels (an incense burner, candle sticks and flower vases) and offerings of fruit and soft drinks. Behind is the altar with its images framed by red brocade embroidered with gold characters. Depending on the size and wealth of the temple there are gongs, drums, side altars and adjoining rooms with shrines to different gods, chapels for prayers to the dead and displays of funerary plaques. There are also living quarters for the temple keepers.
Macau's temples are individually managed and financed solely by contributions from the faithful. The most prosperous support hospitals and homes for the poor or aged.
Prayer and Worship
There is no set time for prayer and no communal service except for funerals. Instead the worshipper comes when he pleases to make offerings, pray for help or give thanks. The temple keeper, in casual singlet and sandals, earns his living by selling joss sticks or spirals of joss which are suspended from the ceiling and burn for two weeks. He also charges for interpreting fortunes. These are numbered to correspond with numbered sticks of wood which the worshipper shakes in a cylindrical box called a chim until one falls out. Another way of getting advice from the gods is tossing "Sing Pui", two pieces of wood with irregular sides which indicate a positive or negative response to a question.
Funerals are very important and provide the priests with much of their income. Relatives buy paper luggage, cars, televisions sets, houses and bundles of "money" which they burn to ensure that the spirit of the dead person will be comfortable while it waits for the final judgement.
Visitors are welcome in any temple in Macau. Photography is usually allowed but it is best to ask permission. It should also be remembered that, informal though it seems, the temple is a house of devotion where courtesy and respect should be shown. A coin in the box for "oil" money to keep the lamps burning is appreciated.
Visitors are also warned that on festival days temples are usually packed with worshippers burning joss and making offerings - very colourful but crowded and confusing.