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What You Don’t Know About Thean Hou Temple
The Thean Hou Temple is quite new and was completed in 1987 and officially opened in 1989. The temple is owned and managed by the Selangor & Hainan Federal Territory Association, which is a clan association for people of Hainan descent who come to the province of Hainan, China. This temple was built by the local Hainanese community and is dedicated to the goddess Tian Hou, or Heavenly Mother.
Near the outer entrance is the white statue of Kwan Yin, the famous goddess of mercy. There is a place where devotees kneel to touch the water that pours from Kwan Yin’s magic pitcher. One can even see devotees trying to sprinkle themselves with the holy water.
Next to him is a smiling old man, holding a book and a staff. He is the Chinese deity of Marriage, or a Chinese Cupid if you will. This heavenly match is called Yue Xia Lao Ren- or ‘old man in the moonlight’. Instead of using arrows like Cupid, he uses a red thread that is tied to the man and the woman’s feet. In fact, the red bag on the left is his red string bag. The book he holds is the book of fate; it lists who you will meet and when you will marry. This deity is very popular with young people, who often offer him candies and chocolates in exchange for the perfect match.
In the small garden on the left are statues of the twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac. There are the rat, the ox, the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the ram, the monkey, the rooster, the dog and the pig. As with the Western zodiac, the Chinese believe that people born under a certain year will take on the personality of the animal. But the Chinese lunar calendar begins on the Chinese New Year, which usually falls in January or February. So if you were born in January or February, depending on which year, there is a chance that your zodiac is the one that precedes it. The best way to find out your zodiac is to refer to the Chinese calendar, which you look up from the Internet. According to a Buddhist legend, Lord Buddha called all the animals of the earth to bid him farewell, but only twelve animals came out. To reward them, the Buddha named them each year in the order in which they arrived – starting with the mouse and ending with the pig.
The main entrance arch of Thean Hou Temple is a sight to behold. Above, is a red board with Chinese calligraphy. Unlike English, Chinese words are read from right to left and from top to bottom. The three words read “Tian Hou Gong” – meaning “Palace of the Queen of Heaven”. If you look carefully at the small characters on each side of the words, they tell you the name of the writer and when it was written. In Chinese calligraphy, writing is not just writing. It is an artistic skill and every writing is a work of art. In fact, a writer’s personality is said to be reflected in his writing. In the right column, there are more Chinese characters. They are too poetical to translate, but very loosely, exhorting us to praise the humility of the King of Heaven, and that all should hold his name in reverence. The pillar on the left expresses the goodness of the Queen of Heaven, who protects suffering and who is always there in times of danger. This type of greeting is important in Chinese architecture and each temple has its own unique greetings. If you have the chance to visit other Chinese temples, ask the locals to translate these words of wisdom for you.
After climbing the stairs, one will find himself in a large courtyard, surrounded by many red pillars on all sides. A very unique feature of Chinese architecture is the concept of open space. Many do not understand that the yard is within building compared to the exterior. This is a very typical feature of Chinese architecture, and many temples are built this way. The courtyard is surrounded on all sides by several interconnected pavilions. This is often known as the ‘sky well’ because the roofs form a small opening towards the sky. The width of the building is more important than the height and depth, giving the width of the building visual impact. The color red is used very freely here, symbolizing prosperity and good luck. The spectacular orange and green roof, with its intricate carvings and magnificent decorations has several small objects lined up in a row at the corners of the upwardly curved roof.
There are many statues of dragons and phoenixes. The phoenix is usually paired with the dragon, symbolizing yin and yang. A common description of the phoenix is that it has the head of a golden pheasant, the beak of a parrot, the body of a mandarin duck, the wings of a rock, the feathers of a peacock, and the feet of a crane. The phoenix is a symbol of virtue and grace, power and prosperity. It is said to be a gentle creature; so gentle that his feet crush nothing and eat only dewdrops. It usually represents the female part of yin and yang, and in ancient times, only the Chinese empress could use the phoenix as her symbol. There is also the white crane, which is the most important bird in Chinese culture, after the phoenix. Cranes are believed to be immortal, thus symbolizing longevity.
Nearby, are gray pillars magnificently carved with dragons coiling up toward the sky. While in the West, dragons are considered evil, Chinese dragons represent strength and power and control over water. In yin and yang terminology, the dragon is yang, or male; while the phoenix is yin, or female. Dragons have their own hierarchy and to know where the dragon stands, count the number of claws. The highest order is the five-clawed dragon, followed by the four-clawed and three-clawed dragon. Since the five-clawed dragon is considered an imperial dragon in China, the farther from China a dragon went, the fewer claws it had. This is why Korean dragons have four claws and Japanese dragons have three. And since Malaysia is considered a Chinese branch, it is only allowed to use four claws on its dragons. In ancient times, improper use of the number of claws was considered treason, and the entire clan of the offender could be executed.
In the main shrine, there are three giant statues. They may look quite similar at first glance, but if you look closely, you will see that they are different.
On the left, is the Goddess of Water. According to legend, on Hainan Island in southern China, one day a fisherman caught driftwood in his net while out fishing. He brought it and strange things began to happen. The driftwood would transform into a new girl every dusk. Her face would light up with an expression of kindness. Soon, the fisherman decides to build a temple using the discarded wood as the centerpiece. However, he could not decide on the best place to build it. As the villagers look to the sky for some clues, a young man suddenly runs from the crowd to another village eight miles away. The boy then pointed to the waterfront of Qing-Lan harbor and they finally found the site of the temple.
The goddess in the center is Mazu, the goddess of the sea who protects sailors and fishermen. She is widely worshiped in the coastal areas of China and Southeast Asia, where many seafaring communities live. According to legend, she was a real-life person born in 960 AD as a girl named Lin Moniang. When she was born, she did not cry; hence her name, which means ‘silent girl’. She had a lot to do with the sea. One tale tells that she wore a bright red dress, standing ashore during rough weather to guide the fishing boats home. Another tale related that she dreamed of her father and brother, both fishermen, during a storm. But her mother woke her up just as she was saving her brother in her dream. As a result, only her father came home. There were also many legends about her ability to accurately predict the weather, thus saving many fishermen from drowning. At the age of 28, she climbed a mountain and flew to heaven and became the Heavenly Queen, or Thean Hou, the name of this temple. Although we are now about two hours away from the sea, the Hainanese still built this temple in her honor to take care of their community. After her death, there were countless reports of a strange girl carrying a red lantern to guide ships home in stormy weather. Today, UNESCO has designated the Mazu faith as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”.
The last goddess is the goddess Kwan Yin, or popularly known as the goddess of mercy. The name Kuan Yin is short for Kuan Shiryin, which means ‘to hear the cries of the world’. Highly revered by Buddhists, Kwan Yin’s history is long and complicated. Worshiped as far away as Vietnam, Indonesia and Japan, the stories of Kuan Yin have many relationships with Taoism, Buddhism and Chinese culture. There are hundreds of stories about Kuan Yin, from healing the sick, saving the Dragon King’s son, saving animals, protecting crops – they all show essentially the same thing: her compassion.
In the area in the middle of the hall are several cylindrical objects with red knobs and a bunch of wands. They are the ‘kau chim’ oracles, or in English, Chinese Fortune Sticks. Many Chinese use these fortune sticks to predict their fortunes for the coming year. First, mix the sticks by clearing your mind. Then grab the whole bunch of sticks, hold them up and throw them back into the container. Look for a single wand that sticks out – this wand carries your wealth. If there are several sticks sticking out, try again until you have only one particular stick sticking out of the bunch. Then, look at the number that is written on the stick and find that number in the corresponding drawer. Each drawer contains sheets of paper on which your wealth for the year is written. This is your fortune for the year. I hope it is full of prosperity, or as the Chinese say, full of ‘fook’. Even if you don’t believe in it, it’s a fun thing to do.
A good view of the temple can be seen from the balcony. The ends of the balcony consist of several small objects: an old man sitting on a fish, followed by three mythical Chinese animals. The old man is Jiang Tai Kung, a historical figure and a highly respected military strategist. One story says that he was fishing for three days and three nights, but to no avail. Finally, he caught a fish and when he cut open the belly of the fish, he found a rag that prophesied that he would one day become a great military strategist. There is a popular story where he holds a bamboo stick with a hook hanging over the water instead of letting it sink into the water. His reasoning was that the fish will come to him when they are ready. This act inspired the Chinese saying that good things come to those who wait. Therefore, he is often depicted as sitting on a fish.
The second mythological animal is the Qilin, which is said to bring peace whenever it arrives. It is often mistakenly called the Chinese unicorn. Qilin is a gentle creature that can walk on grass without stepping on a blade, but breathes fire when faced with an evil person.
The third mythological animal is the Chinese rock, which has the body of a bird but the legs of a goat with fish-like scales. And the fourth is the famous Chinese Lion, which has protective power. They usually stand at the gates of imperial palaces and temples.
Back at the main shrine, there is a staircase on the left that leads to the Turtle Pond. The tortoise is one of the four celestial emblems—along with the dragon, phoenix, and white tiger—that guard the constellation. The tortoise guards the north, the phoenix guards the south, the dragon guards the east, and the white tiger guards the west. Of these four animals, the turtle is the only real animal, so here’s a chance to see a lot of them at the Turtle Pond.
There is also an interesting shop selling religious items on the first floor for tourists to buy souvenirs.
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