Shanghai's Temple of the Queen of Heaven

Qiao Zhengyue Tang Dafei Li Jiaohao
Shanghai's largest Mazu temple has had parts scattered to corners of the city where they embrace new lives.
Qiao Zhengyue Tang Dafei Li Jiaohao

Shot by Tang Dafei and Yu Wenhao. Edited by Tang Dafei. Subtitles by Li Jiaohao.

Along Suzhou Creek in Shanghai, under the Henan Road Bridge, once stood the city’s largest Mazu Temple, Tian Hou Gong, or the Temple of the Queen of Heaven. In changes that took place over decades, the temple’s audience hall and ancient stage were placed in different corners of the city where they've embraced new lives.

Mazu belief originated in the coastal areas of Fujian Province. The prototype of Mazu was a legendary figure named Lin Mo who was the sixth daughter of a Song Dynasty official over 1,000 years ago. She was revered after her death as a guardian deity of fishermen and merchants sailing at sea. It is thought she protected believers through miraculous intervention. Lin was given many titles, including the Queen of Heaven, by Chinese emperors from all dynasties. She is also known as Mazu. There are nearly 5,000 Mazu temples around the world. Mazu belief still prevails in China's Fujian Province, Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia.

Shanghai is a famous port city. The Temple of the Queen of Heaven was first assembled outside the old East Gate during the Song Dynasty and later extended to other areas. The early temples were all damaged by war.

In 1879, Chonghou, a minister of the late Qing Dynasty and an envoy to Russia, suggested rebuilding the Mazu temple with a place to accommodate officials heading overseas on diplomatic missions. In 1884, the Temple of the Queen of Heaven and its residences for diplomats were finished. The complex covered an area of more than 2,600 square meters, including a gate, a stage, east and west stands, bell and drum pavilions, an audience hall and a building to serve as a "bedroom.” Mazu's statue was enshrined in the audience hall.

Supervised by Qing’s royal government, the temple was built with high-quality materials and fine craftsmanship. Exquisite wood, brick, and stone carvings displayed the characteristics of late Qing Dynasty architecture. After the temple's completion, local sea merchants would come to pray for blessings on memorial days, such as the Queen’s birthday. Local officials and high-ranking officers who stayed in the diplomat's residence also went to the temple to pay homage to Mazu.

The temple was partially damaged during war, and it was used for schools, refugee shelters and religious sacrifices. After 1949, due to the housing shortage, the temple and its yard housed local families.

In 1978, the audience hall faced demolition because its school needed expanding. Fortunately, it was moved and reconstructed in Fangta Park in Songjiang District, a beautiful Chinese park designed by Feng Jizhong, a master of modern Chinese architecture.

Before the subway project began in 2006, the remaining theater, its stands, and a gate left on site were dismantled and preserved in a warehouse. Since then, temple heritage buildings have been scattered to corners of the city, where they've embraced new lives.

The audience hall was moved to Fangta Park in Songjia in 1981. The 17-meter-high brick-and-wood structure is graced by upturned eaves and a beautifully curved roof. The building was used as the park’s tea house for a long time. But after renovation in 2002, it welcomed a statue of Mazu from Meizhou in Fujian Province, and the old temple culture was revived.

The statue of the Queen of Heaven named “Pujiang Mazu” is 3.6 meters high and carved from the wood of an entire camphor tree. She wears a phoenix coronet and robe, which are very elegant. A fun fact: the statue was designed with adjustable limbs to help ease it into place. The park hosts a memorial ceremony for its Queen every year.

Today the Mazu Ceremony is included in the national intangible cultural heritage, and listed as one of China's three major ceremonies, along with the ceremony of the Yellow Emperor's Mausoleum in Shaanxi Province and the Ceremony of Confucius in Shandong Province. In 2009, UNESCO listed Mazu culture on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

The audience hall also showcases costumes and sacrificial items of Mazu from the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The walls are hung with conferments on Mazu by Chinese emperors. A canonization recorded her three main achievements as "helping the country", "protecting the saint", and "safeguarding the people".

Buildings along the banks of Suzhou Creek bacame a window to display Shanghai Mazu culture and received many foreign and Chinese guests. The big-roof audience hall of the Qing Dynasty also complements the famous square pagoda of the Northern Song Dynasty and brick carvings of the Ming Dynasty in the park, showing the beauty of ancient Chinese architecture.

In 2021, more historical buildings along Suzhou Creek were renovated and given new public functions according to urban planning. The gate, the stage, and the east and west stands were restored and reconstructed near the original site.

Two conservation teams, the International Research Center for Architectural Heritage Conservation from Shanghai Jiao Tong University and the Jianwei Cultural Heritage Conservation Tech Company, studied many official buildings and temples from the Qing Dynasty. They photographed and numbered thousands of wooden and stone features that were preserved in 2006. They then used advanced technology to scan and model the structures before rebuilding them to resemble the originals.

The location of the former audience hall is now a green space and displayed as a site of relics. The gray square bricks of the gate are paved into a rhombus at a 45-degree angle, solemn and magnificent. Beautiful brackets and brick carvings with landscape patterns such as plants and animals grace the gate. Circular reliefs flank the entrance and include a pattern of two dragons playing with a pearl. The relief on the west side is original, while the east relief was lost and restored.

After entering the gate, one goes up the stairs to the ancient stage. The stage’s spiral ceiling is a highlight of the Temple of the Queen of Heaven. The dome structure is handcrafted with some 700 wooden cubes and not purely for decoration. Both beautiful and functional, the clever design acts as a sound amplifier during performances. The caisson ceiling was restored by some of Suzhou's finest artisans, famous for their woodwork within ancient Chinese architecture.

The east and west stands have also been rebuilt. Here is the best angle to appreciate the ancient stage. In Shanghai over 100 years ago, people sitting here drank tea while enjoying performances - how pleasant it must have been.

Following renovation, the gate, stage, and the east and west stands form an open courtyard. The old place name “Tian Hou Gong” has become a new cultural landmark of Suzhou Creek, allowing people to appreciate the area’s history.

The Temple of the Queen of Heaven buildings, now scattered to different corners of the city, are protected for new functions in two historical areas of Shanghai. Quietly they tell their unique, historical stories. In this episode of Qiao Shanghai we’ve reconnected the buildings and completed an archaeological puzzle of this legendary temple.

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