ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

For the last in our series on Faith in China, we turn to the remarkable rebirth of folk religion. Today, we meet a folk goddess, Mazu, who has entered the Daoist and Buddhist pantheon. She has around 160 million followers inside China. But far from mistrusting the worshippers of Mazu, China's Communist Party is now encouraging them.

As part of our story, NPR's Louisa Lim traveled to Fujian province in the south of China for a special birthday party.

LOUISA LIM: Very carefully, an elderly woman is lowering garlands of red banknotes around the neck of a statue of the goddess Mazu. It has pride of place in the Mazu temple in Wenxing village on Meizhou Island where the real Mazu was born in 960 A.D.

It's the night before her 1,050th birthday, and the island's Mazu statues are getting spiffed up before her big day. Here, crowds of women in lucky red clothes burn incense and kowtow at the altar.

Mazu was a real person. Temple guardian Wei Yazhen tells her story.

Mr. WEI YAZHEN (Guardian, Mazu Temple): (Through Translator) When Mazu was a little girl, her father and brothers went out fishing and got into trouble at sea. She dreamed she was carrying them to safety. But then her mother woke her up and she dropped her father into the sea. Her father died, but she saved her two brothers.

LIM: There are many different versions of this story, but Mazu became known for her ability to predict stormy weather and protect fishermen. Her fame grew even after her death.

In the 12th century, the Chinese emperor ordered an official Mazu temple to be built, and Mazu worship spread nationwide. Nowadays, there are 4,000 Mazu temples in China, 160 million worshippers.

Mr. CHENG ZHIGUI (Member, Opera Troupe): (Singing in foreign language)

LIM: One is 23-year-old Cheng Zhigui, who's part of an opera troupe singing on stage in front of the temple. He's dressed in black silk pajamas. His face painted in a dramatic pink-and-white mask. This is a traditional performance known as Putian Opera. Such scenes are repeated all over the island tonight.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: The whole village is watching, dressed in their festival finery. But Cheng says he's not singing for mere mortals.

Mr. ZHIGUI: (Through Translator) We perform for Mazu. We believe that she's watching us singing opera. The audience can also watch. But if there are no people here, she'll still be watching us.

(Soundbite of firecrackers)

LIM: Dawn breaks on the big day with firecrackers. In Wenxing, at 7:00 in the morning, the entire village is up. They carry the Mazu statue out of the temple, accompanied by kids wearing traditional costumes, as a band plays folk instruments.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: They shout as Mazu is hauled down the steps in front of the temple and hefted into a lorry. She's driven to the square in front of the main Mazu temple.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: This year, old rites are being resurrected for the biggest ceremony in more than half a century.

Here's the chairman of the main Mazu temple, Lin Jinbang.

Mr. LIN JINBANG (Chairman, Mazu Temple): (Through Translator) This year, we even have an honor guard of horses for the first time in more than six decades. Old people who have seen the ceremony before passed on the rituals. Otherwise, the next generation wouldn't know what to do.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing in foreign language)

LIM: Wenxing temple's Mazu is carried into the main square where 10,000 people have come to celebrate. She takes pride of place, side by side with more than a dozen sister Mazus at one end of the square. Following instructions set to haunting music, people kowtow to the statue.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing in foreign language)

LIM: Facing off at the other end of the square is a podium, where government officials from the atheist Communist Party are seated; behind them, not the Communist Party emblem as usual, but a picture of Mazu.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: This ceremony is part political rally, part religious ritual, part cultural event. It's surprising, since until recently, worshipping Mazu was officially classified as superstition and banned - now, all that has changed. Amid a hailstorm of fireworks, even Meizhou Party Secretary Zhuang Yonghui admits to worshipping.

Secretary ZHUANG YONGHUI (Communist Party, Meizhou Island): (Through Translator) Of course, I believe in Mazu. I've worked here a long time. I'm a devotional believer.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: But aren't you a Communist Party member? Surely, you're not allowed to believe in religion.

Secretary YONGHUI: (Through Translator) Mazu is not a religion. It's a popular belief, so there's no contradiction with the Communist Party's stance on not believing in religion.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: Women in elegant green robes dance in the square in perfectly timed unison. Such cultural performances are significant. They're one factor that four years ago allowed the government to reclassify Mazu worship, not as superstition - not even as religion - but as cultural heritage, making it politically acceptable.

The real drivers for this decision, however, are political and economic. They're embodied in the presence of Cheng Minshou, a beaming Taiwanese who's clutching a small golden statue of Mazu.

Mr. CHENG MINSHOU: (Through Translator) I drove 14 hours to be here, to bring a golden statue Mazu from my hometown to participate in this ceremony.

LIM: In addition to this icon, he's also bringing investment to the area, both in terms of business and money for the new temple. And he's not the only one.

Mr. MINSHOU: (Through Translator) Taiwanese coming here on pilgrimage have really helped communication between mainland China and Taiwan. We've bought a small island, and we're building a Mazu temple there this year. It will be finished by next year.

(Soundbite of music and firecrackers)

LIM: He's carrying his Mazu in a noisy daylong procession around the island. The firecrackers explode and dancers whirl. Shared belief in Mazu was one of the forces bringing Taiwanese to this area, even when politics made that difficult. In the past three months, a hundred thousand tourists have been to Meizhou, including 15 groups of Taiwanese every day.

So Mazu worship has served to build closer political and economic ties across the Taiwan Strait, strengthening China's eventual aim of reunification.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: As the parade goes past, villagers tuck money into the statues. Most have already given contributions to their village temples. The kids in the parade wear chains of banknotes around their necks, like the Mazu statues.

As people get richer here, money is one way in which Mazu worship is changing the social structure and, as Ms. Zheng explains, the balance of power in the villages.

Ms. ZHENG: (Through Translator) Of course, the temple chairman is more important than the village chief, because the temple governs a larger area and makes decisions about temple affairs, which the village boss can't.

Unidentified Woman #3: (Singing in foreign language)

LIM: Women wearing boat costumes row past, singing. Here, religion is well and truly alive. What's more, it's reinvigorating both tradition and civil society. The atheist Communist Party is encouraging the worship of this ancient goddess to further its goal of building a harmonious society and of moving closer to Taiwan - the island it regards as a renegade province.

It's also a sign of how much the Communist Party has moved. Once, it saw worshiping Mazu as rank superstition. But now, she's a money-spinner. She's been co-opted and harnessed by local officials. Far from being banned, Mazu is being used by China's Communist leaders for their own political and economic ends.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

(Soundbite of music and firecrackers)

NORRIS: And you can find all of our previous reports on China's faith boom at npr.org.

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