Sailing with the Gods

The Gods and Beliefs of the Sea Peoples and Religious Figure Carving

By Hong Kong Maritime Museum

Tin Hau (20th century) by Tai Cheong Wood EngravingHong Kong Maritime Museum

Origin

Sea people do
not have permanent residence on land and boats are the tools
to earn living as well as their homes. They would
have the religious figures on boats as the tutelary
gods of family. In
the 1950s-60s, sea people in Hong Kong would
buy religious figures from the
‘Idol shops’, also called Kong
Chai Pou, which often located near
shore for sea people’s convenience. The carving
industry particularly flourished at that time and many new shops opened to satisfy
the great demand. 

A red tablet of a pair made in a convex form with stands by Tai Cheong Wood engravingHong Kong Maritime Museum

Worship the Gods

Sea people usually believe in more than one god. They may have figures from different religions on boats, for example, the gods from Taoism, Buddhism or other folk religions. Living in a difficult environment onboard during the unpredictable and dangerous sea journeys, sea people also seek protection from patron. Moreover, they believe that some deities would bring them harvest and fortune. Religious figures are also for ancestral worship. Sea people in the old days were illiterate, and so they would have the figures instead of soul tablet that full of words for worship.

Family immortal ("20th century") by Tai Cheong Wood EngravingHong Kong Maritime Museum

Craftsmanship

Religious figure carving is one of the traditional Chinese traditional arts and crafts, which involves complicated procedure. It includes designing, sourcing materials, carving, assembling, polishing and coloring, etc. Wooden religious figures are made of camphor wood or sandalwood. The skilled engraver starts from doing the outlook - carving the body and head. Figures of  boat people’s ancestors, gods and figures from folk religions are common. The design and outlook of each figures are customized. For example, the physical size of ancestor’s figure varies depending on the family hierarchy while the costume is usually from the ancestor’s preference - and so mediumship rituals might take place in order to communicate with the deceased. Necessary decoration would be done by carving the appearance, colouring and gold-leafing.

Family immortal, Tai Cheong Wood Engraving, From the collection of: Hong Kong Maritime Museum
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Chen Wang ("Late 19th century") by UnknownHong Kong Maritime Museum

Religious figures
carving in Hong Kong and Macao

Wood carving was very popular in the 1950-60s
when numbers of engravers from Guangdong and Ningbo moved
to Hong Kong and built up their business. Religious
figure carving was made in different style but exquisite. Large
number of boat people living in typhoon shelters or nearby sea bays brought
great demands on religious figures,
which flourished the
development of
industry, especially
those serving sea people.  However,
the business declined when more sea
people moved to the land; and more
critical is that, it
has being seen as a traditional craftsmanship rather than a profitable
business in
Hong Kong. Nevertheless, wooden
religious figures carving has already included in the First
Intangible Cultural Heritage Inventory
of Hong Kong. During 1920s and 1930s, religious figure carving was vigorous in Macau.
It was hindered by the war in 1940s and started to dwindle in 1960s with the
decline of fishing industry. Nowadays only “Tai Chong Wood Engraving Co.” and
“Kuong Weng Religious Figure Carving and Woodwork” are still running business. With the support of the government,
religious figure carving was inscribed on the Second National Intangible
Cultural Heritage List on 14th June 2008.

Chen Wang, seating and holding a fish in each hand and stepping on fishes, is the deity of Pearl River.

Tin Hau Sheng Mu ("Early 20th century") by UnknownHong Kong Maritime Museum

Tin Hau

Tin Hau – literally Queen of Heaven – is thought to
have been a real person, Lin Moniang who lived in Fujian and was born in 960CE.
She was associated with a miracle and became venerated.
There is the interesting variation in face colour of the Tin Hau statues –
white or pink is the most common in land peoples’ Tin Hau cults while black Tin
Hau seems mainly to have been worshipped by the people of the sea. 

Tin Hau(Empress of Heaven) is known by other names including:
Mazu(Mother-Ancestor),
Mazu-po(Elderly Lady Mazu)
Tian Fei(Heavenly Princess Consort)
A-Ma or A-Po(Grandmother)

Chu Tai Sin ("Early 20th century") by UnknownHong Kong Maritime Museum

Chu Tai Sin

Boat people would worship deities unique to
themselves that are placed in the same shrine with their shipboard god, Tin
Hau. Chu Tai Sin, the god of
sea and the incarnation
of Dayu in
the legend, is one of them. Sea people believe that Chu Tai
Sin could protect them in the sea journeys.
Belief of Chu Tai Sin spread from Hong Kong to Macao in the last century and
there are a number of believers. Every year, they gather and organise Jiu Festival at Lung Ngam
Temple in Tai O and Aberdeen Typhoon Shelter. Small
figures of Chu Tai Sin will also be sent to the Jiu for
worshipping.

Chu Tai Sin, holding a fly whisk in right hand and an ingot in the other.

Tam Kung ("20th century") by Tai Cheong Wood EngravingHong Kong Maritime Museum

Tam
Kung 

Lord or Duke Tam is another sanctified Shen. He is patron of inshore river and boat people and especially Hong Kong lightermen. This is specifically Hong Kong and Macao Shen and in origin from the Hakka people. He is usually depicted as a child god. 

Immortal twins of Harmony and Union, He Her Erxian ("Late 19th century") by UnknownHong Kong Maritime Museum

He He Erxian

He He Erxian is an immortal twins symbolizing wealth, one carries a stock of coins in hand and the other one holds a toad with three legs. Also, they are the gods of harmony and union bringing good marriage. 

Immortal twin of Harmony and Union, He He Erxian, Unknown, late 19th century, From the collection of: Hong Kong Maritime Museum
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Immortal twin of Harmony and Union, He he Erxian, Unknown, "late 19th century", From the collection of: Hong Kong Maritime Museum
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Family immortal by Tai Cheong Wood EngravingHong Kong Maritime Museum

Family Immortal

Statue of a girl sitting on a white crane with the crane's legs painted in green color. This is a boat people ancestral image for a girl who died under the age of puberty. In the Daoist beliefs, the dead would ride on a white crane to heaven. Although these are in no way objects of worship, the family altars are decorated with special ancestors’ family immortals. They usually in standard forms – either pair of the Elderly Man and Elderly Woman, the Mature Man and Mature Woman or the pre-pubescent girl and boy. These standardized and customized images of ancestors indeed reflect the personality of the deceased.

Family immortal, Tai Cheong Wood Engraving, "20th century", From the collection of: Hong Kong Maritime Museum
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Credits: Story

Created by Phoebe Tong & Kelly Wong, Hong Kong Maritime Museum

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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