Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Story of Yishan Island (Fujian)

One day centuries ago, it is said that this happened.

Five fishing boats, each one with four fishermen aboard, sailed down the Min River, past the Min River estuary and out to sea. They had no sooner entered the deep sea when the weather suddenly grew ugly. Huge winds buffeted the boats, causing them to bob violently up and down like so many eggs in a large, shaking tub. Each man aboard the boats was a seasoned mariner, and each one also calculated his chances of surviving a sudden squall like this.

The chances did not look favorable.

Suddenly a voice rang out, heard on all the ships and by every fisherman despite the din of the storm.

"Head for Yishan Island! Head for Yishan Island!"

It was a distinctly feminine voice, yet no girl or woman was aboard any of the fishing boats.

"Girl," shouted a fisherman, "wherever you are, where's this Yishan Island?"

"You don't know? Then follow me! I'll lead you there!"

A young woman appeared on the surface of the sea. She walked on the water, calming it with every step she took, leaving a long, wide, peaceful wake behind her, a pathway, if you will, for the fishing boats to follow her, which they did.

In no time, they reached Yishan Island. The five boats, one after another, followed the young lady all the way into a natural harbor densely ringed with banyan trees.

With their boats now safely moored, the fishermen climbed down onto the sand. They looked everywhere for the young woman who had miraculously led them to safety on this unknown islet. They searched every corner until it was dark; however, she was nowhere to be found.

The fishermen trudged back to their boats to hunker down for the night. Who could sleep that night, though? Each man couldn't take his mind off the young lady, try as he might. Then, each man would later swear that he had heard that night a woman singing a soft tune that came like a gentle breeze. Nobody could tell from where this singing voice came or what it was saying, but somehow the men who heard it that night knew that it came from the daughter of a fishing family.

It would not be the only time this voice was heard singing and then calming the waves. A large black dragon living in the depths of the sea was behind the storms that raged along the coast and in the Taiwan Strait, causing so many fishermen and sailors to lose their lives. The young woman who walked on the waters, whose singing hushed the storms had lost her own father and two brothers to the violent seas whipped up by this dragon. To avenge her father and brothers and to protect all those who worked upon the sea, she jumped into the ocean to do battle with the dragon. For years now, they have both struggled, the girl and the dragon, neither winning the upper hand. That meant that violent storms would still suddenly erupt, as they certainly do now.

That night aboard those five fishing boats, the fishermen knelt towards the direction of the voice they heard and offered incense and their prayers of thanks. Then at midnight she appeared over the prows of their fishing boats.

"You need to sail back now. Head southeasterly. Leave now and you shall arrive home safely," she said.

The ships left the harbor and headed back.

"Miss, who are you?" the fishermen implored. "What is your name?"

But no answer came; the young woman had disappeared.

The five boats and the twenty men all made it back to port. They and others then began the search for Yishan Island; their plan, to erect a shrine to the young woman who dedicates herself to fishermen and sailors. None of those fishermen ever found Yishan Island, though some searched for a decade. No trace of such an island has ever been located.

Even long after, there are those who say that during the midst of a storm, a distinctly feminine voice can be heard, saying, "Head for Yishan Island . . ."


from Minjian wenxuejuan. (Folk literature archives.) Zhuo Zhonglin & Chen Huiping, eds. (Fuzhou: Haixia wenyi chubanshe, 1990). pp. 19-20.

This is one of many legends about the folk goddess Mazu (Matsu), a patron saint of all seafarers. She is a very popular deity on both sides of the Taiwan Straits. She was also once an actual person. The first mention of her occurred in the Song dynasty. In life she was named Lin Mo (or Lin Moniang--"Silent Maiden" Lin), born at Putian, Meizhou, Fujian Province. She was called "Silent" because, according to legend, she didn't utter a sound for a month after being born. Today, she is worshiped in many temples in Fujian, Guangdong and Taiwan and wherever the descendants of those from Southeastern China live. The former Portuguese colony of Macao is named for her, and it boasts a temple dating possibly from the fifteenth century, during the Ming dynasty. The island of Matsu north of Taiwan and under Taiwanese administration is also named for her. The most renowned Mazu temple on Taiwan is at Pei-kang (Beigang), a popular destination for pilgrims. The temple in her home town, Putian, remains a very important center of Mazu worship.

Update, 5/11/10: Isaac Julien's film anthology Ten Thousand Waves has been released. The film contains a chapter based on my translation of "The Story of Yishan Island" and features actress Maggie Cheung.

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