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What You Don’t Know About Thean Hou Temple
Thean Hou temple is rather new, and was completed in 1987 and officially opened in 1989. The temple belongs to and is run by the Selangor & Federal Territory Hainan Association, which is a clan association for people of Hainanese descent, who come the province of Hainan, in China. This temple was built by the local Hainanese community and is dedicated to Goddess Tian Hou, or The Heavenly Mother.
Near the outer entrance is the white statue of Kwan Yin, the famous Goddess of Mercy. There’s a place for devotees to kneel to touch the water that pours out of Kwan Yin’s magical pitcher. One might even see devotees attempting to splash themselves with the holy water.
Next to it is a smiling old man, holding a book and a staff. He is the Chinese deity of Marriage, or a Chinese Cupid if you like. This celestial matchmaker is called Yue Xia Lao Ren- or ‘the old man in the moon light’. Instead of using arrows like Cupid, he uses a piece of red string that is tied to the man and the woman’s feet. In fact, the red bag that on the left is his bag of red strings. The book that he is holding is the book of fate; it lists who you will meet and when you will be married. This deity is very popular with young people, who often offer him candies and chocolates in return for the perfect match.
At the small garden on the left are the statues of the twelve animals in Chinese zodiac. There is 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. Just like with Western zodiac, the Chinese believe that people born under a particular year will take on the personality of the animal. But the Chinese lunar calendar begins at 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 possibility 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 check out from the internet. According to a Buddhist legend, Lord Buddha summoned all the animals of the earth to bid him farewell, but only twelve animals turned up. To reward them, Buddha named each year after them, according to the order they had arrived- beginning with the rat, and ending with the pig.
The main entrance arch of the Thean Hou temple is a sight to behold. Above, is a red signboard with Chinese calligraphy. Unlike in English, Chinese words are read from right to left, and from top to bottom. The three words read ‘Tian Hou Gong’- which means ‘Palace of the Queen of Heaven’. If you look carefully on the little 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 piece of writing is a work of art. In fact, the personality of a writer is said to be reflected in his writing. On the right pillar, there are more Chinese characters. They are too poetic to be translated, but very loosely, they urge us to praise the humility of the King of Heaven and that everyone would hold his name in reverence. The pillar on the left expounds the kindness of the Queen of Heaven, who defends the suffering and who is always there in times of danger. This type of greeting is important in Chinese architecture, and each temple has their 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 stair cases, one will find themselves at large courtyard, surrounded by many red pillars on all sides. A very unique feature of Chinese architecture is the open space concept. Many do not realize that the courtyard is inside the building as opposed to the outside. This is a very typical characteristic of Chinese architecture, and many temples are built like this. 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 to the sky. The breadth of the building is more important than the height and depth, giving the width of the building visual impact. The colour red is used very liberally here, symbolizing prosperity and good fortune. The spectacular orange and green roof, with its intricate carvings and grand decorations has several tiny objects lined up in a row on the corners of the up-curved roofs.
There are many statues of dragons and phoenixes. The phoenix is usually paired with the dragon, symbolizing the yin and the 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 roc, the feathers of a peacock and the legs 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 its feet crushes nothing and it eats only dewdrops. It usually represents the female part of the yin and yang, and in ancient times, only the Chinese Empress can 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 the magnificently carved gray pillars with dragons coiling upwards towards heaven. While in the West, dragons are considered evil, Chinese dragons represent power and potency 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 further from China a dragon went, the fewer claws it had. That’s why Korean dragons have four claws and Japanese ones have three. And since Malaysia is considered a Chinese offshoot, it is allowed to use only four claws on its dragons. In ancient times, improper use of the number of claws was considered treason, and the offender’s entire clan can be executed.
At the main shrine, are three giant statues. They may look quite similar at first glance, but if you closely, you will see that they are different.
On the left, is the Goddess of the Waterfront. According to legend, in the island of Hainan south of China, one day a fisherman caught driftwood in his net while he was out fishing. He brought it back and strange things began to happen. The driftwood would turn into a young girl every sunset. Her face would shine with an expression of benevolence. Soon, the fisherman decides to build a temple using the driftwood as the centrepiece. However, he could not decide the best place to build it. As the villagers look to heaven for some hints, a young boy suddenly ran out of the crowd towards another village eight miles away. The boy then pointed at the waterfront of the Port of Qing-Lan, and they finally found the site of the temple.
The goddess in the centre is Mazu, the goddess of the sea who protects sailors and fishermen. She is widely worshipped in the costal areas of China and Southeast Asia, where many communities of seafarers live. According to legend, she was a real life person, born 960 AD as a girl called Lin Moniang. When she was born, she did not cry; hence her name, which means ‘silent girl’. She had many association with the sea. One tale tells of her wearing a bright red dress, standing on the shore during harsh weather to guide fishing boats home. Another tale told of her dreaming about her father and brother, both fishermen, during a thunderstorm. But her mother woke her up at the exact moment that she was rescuing her brother in her dream. As a result, only her father came home. There were also many legends about her being able to predict the weather accurately, thus saving many fishermen from drowning. At the age of 28, she climbed up to a mountain and flew to heaven, and became the Heavenly Queen, or Thean Hou, the name of this temple. Even though we are now about two hours away from sea, the Hainanese still built this temple in honour of her to look after their community. After her death, there were countless reports of a strange girl carrying a red lantern to guide ships home in stormy weathers. Today, the UNESCO has designated the Mazu belief 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, the history of Kwan Yin is long and complicated. Worshipped as far 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 to saving the Dragon King’s son to saving animals, to protecting crops- they all tell essentially the same thing: her compassion.
At the area in the middle of the hall are a few cylindrical shaped objects with red knobs and a bundle of sticks. They are the ‘kau chim’ oracles, or in English, Chinese Fortune Sticks. Many Chinese use these fortune sticks to predict their fate for the coming year. First, shuffle the sticks while clearing your mind. Then grab the entire bundle of sticks, hold them up and drop them back into the container. Look for the one singular stick that juts out- this stick carries your fortune. If there are a few sticks jutting out, try again until you have just one singular stick poking out from the bundle. Then, look at the number that is written on the stick and find that number in the appropriate drawer. Each drawer contains slips of paper where you fortune for the year is written. That’s your fate for the year. I hope it is filled with prosperity, or as the Chinese say, filled with ‘fook’. Even if you don’t believe in it, it’s a fun thing to do.
At balcony one can get a good view of the temple. The ends of the balcony consists of some tiny 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 revered military strategist. One story has it that he was fishing for three days and three nights but to no avail. Finally, he caught a fish, and when he sliced the fish’s belly open, he found a cloth that prophesized that he would one day be a great military strategist. There is a popular story of him holding a bamboo stick with the hook hanging above the water, instead of letting it sink into the water. His rational was that fish will come to him when they are ready. This act inspired the Chinese saying that good things come to those who wait. Hence, he is often depicted as sitting on a fish.
The second mythological animal is the Qilin, which is said to bring serenity whenever it arrives. It is often wrongly called the Chinese unicorn. A Qilin is a gentle creature that can walk on grass without trampling on the blade, but spouts fire when confronted with an evil person.
The third mythological animal is the Chinese roc, which has a body of a bird but the legs of a goat with scales like a fish. And the fourth one is the famous Chinese Lion, which has protective powers. 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 Tortoise Pond. The tortoise is one of the four celestial emblems- along with the dragon, the phoenix and the white tiger- who 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 tortoise is the only real life animal, so here’s a chance to see many of them at the Tortoise Pond.
There is also an interesting shop that sells religious items at the ground floor for tourists to buy souvenirs.
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