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Maritime Religion: An East Asian Perspective


Image (1): ‘License’ at the front of a fishing junk used by Tanka (boat-people in Hong Kong). The boat-people's livelihood depended on fishing. Photo taken in Hong Kong Museum of History’s “Hong Kong Story”, August 2020.

‘Sailors, as a rule, were superstitious or “natural” religious man’ (Hugill, 1967: 91) – while Hugill did not explain why, the subtle mentioning of joss-house and Buddhist temple within sailortown has left us cues to follow up on the prevailing roles played by religion amongst the maritime societies. They can be Amon’s ability to control the water and wind on the Nile for the sea-intimated Egyptians, Isis’s acceptance of thanks-offering after facilitating a ‘safe crossing’ for seafarers, and in Asia, the Orang Laut’s negotiation for safety with the hantu laut (sea spirits) and affected by the ilmu (supernatural force) when sailing and fishing, the navigation hints from the feminine Tianhou (Goddess Matsu) in Southern China and South East Asia regions such as Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand. Join me as I walk you through the basic lenses to understand religion in a maritime context.

Maritime Religion – exclusive to mariners?

In the ‘Goddess of Isis’ published in 2020, Bricault says, ‘Religion is fundamentally a matter for the fields of tradition and memory, even if it frequently accommodates innovations’. Not unlike the land-based framework, maritime religion could be viewed as an overarching term mostly relevant to a system of beliefs, driven by cognition, tradition, invention and other psychosocial experience and political maneuvers, and that governs, at least partially, the actions of seafarers. Noted that maritime religions are not exclusive to mariners, fishermen or seafarers, but to those who live near or intertwined with maritime societies. But why do they exist? A way to see it is to ponder over the risks affiliated with leading a seafaring life – often time these mariners failed to return to their local homes or got injured because of the unexpected weather condition, resulting in delays in sea journeys and risks of accidents, or the unfortunate encountering with the pirates and ‘Devils’ of all kinds within the deep ocean.

Sea ‘licenses’, permission to Cross the Sea

With uncertainties, there comes religion. The ‘believers’ of maritime religion, hence, are mostly looking to seek comfort. It could then be interpreted as safety-seeking, or as guarantee-seeking of successful voyages, such as the wish for a stably maximized wind power for efficient sail, or as exemplified in numerous examples of a Chinese sail with the written phrase ‘A Successful Sail with Good Wind’ (Chinese character: 一帆風順) being printed on. Such comfort-seeking is also about pleasing the unpredictable ‘supernatural’ forces, such as visiting one or many seaside temples that worship the feminine and tender Tianhou and ask for protection and signs of their next voyage for Chinese and South East Asians, or to beg the Sea God at makam in Indosenia for permission of passage to a certain area of the sea; or in Southern China, boatmen will place a ‘license’, usually a reddish junk of papers, animal hairs, cloth and various plants, at the front of their boats to signal to the gods and spirits about their journey.

Image (2): A religious poster with the written phrase ‘A Successful Sail with Good Wind’ on the front of a shipyard company in Tam Kon Shan Road, Hong Kong, taken in April 2021.

Where to find maritime religion?

The analysis of maritime religion could also be detected through spatial elements – venues of which these religious representations, actions and even concepts are displayed. This could be a seaside shrine or temple, or, it could also happen on a household-basis where shrines were built for the Tianhou, or on the ship where the elements of Tianhou, such as a painting of her or a carved character resembling her name on the ship. This notion of space must be reminded, though, that it is not fixated on one or several locations, but trans-spatial, especially when we consider the portable religious items, such as jade or wooden figurines of the Tianhou. Religion travels alongside the people.

Seeing religion through operant conditioning?

When we consider Cynthia Chou’s hilarious experience with the Orang Laut (Cynthia is an anthropologist), where she was instructed to visit the ‘makam’, the reliquary tomb, in order to gain the Sea God "permission to enter and stay in Riau", it led us to the third analytical element – behavioral. Borrowing from B. F. Skinner’s operant conditioning theory, the behavioral aspect of maritime religion can be categorized as positive and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement of maritime religion could be, for example, the offering of incense to Tianhou, and they are given the impression that the more they continue to perform this action, the higher the likelihood for them to be blessed and protected and thus, encourage those surrounding them to partake; whereas for negative reinforcement, also using the folk religion on Tianhou as an example, is to avoid doing something in order to gain the protection or blessing of the deity, such as the necessary avoidance of incense-offering or temple visiting during menstruation (which could be linked to superstition).

Religion, Rituals and Superstition

Rituals are rites, actions performed for a myriad of purposes associated with religious beliefs (such as to glorify the deities, or seek protection, ‘register’ the newborn or other momentum rites of passages, morn the death; seek an answer to uncertainties) such as chanting in a gathering near a local folk shrine; or that of a Taoist-Buddhist Temple, normally a closed ceremony, and perhaps restating Dhamasutra; or that of the more commonly known lion-dance during Tianhou’s Birthday amongst the boat people in Southern China to scare away ‘bad energies’ or devils.

As for ‘superstition’, which is an essentially contested term and often with a negative connotation, we could relegate it as simply as an evaluative note towards religious beliefs, either from non-religious people, or from believers that try to understand the reason behind certain beliefs, system of actions and representations and failed to find rational or logical answers.

But what are the functions played by maritime religions?

Image (3): The sea ‘license’ on the front of a local ship chandler (left hand upper corner), taken in Tam Kon Shan Road, Hong Kong, April 2021.

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