Temple of the Heavenly Matriarch
Also known as Auntie's Palace ( 娘娘宮 Niangniang Gong ), the temple is located at the western bank of Sancha, just outside the east gate of old Tianjin city, or, by its new name, Jiuwenhua Rd.
As the oldest building standing in the city, the temple saw its first construction in the first Taiding year of the Yuan dynasty and its renovation in the first Yongding year of the Ming dynasty. Just like its counterparts in Fujian, Taiwan and countries in Southeastern Asia, the temple was constructed in honor of Lin Moniang, the Ocean Goddess who was allegedly born in Putian city, Fujian. According to legend, she showed her intelligence at her girlhood, and became good at medical techniques at age of 15. Since then, she regarded medical treatment as her lifetime career. She had good knowledge about the ocean and the weather, by which she helped to avoid disasters on the ocean in bad times, and saved a lot of lives when disasters did happen. After her death, the local people constructed small temples in her memory. Since then, she was popularly known as the Motherly Matriarch. In the following Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, she was granted the titles of Heavenly Consort and Heavenly Matriarch by the imperial courts, enjoying worship in national ritual.
Overlooking River Hai, the temple stretched for 2500 square meters from the west to the east, consisting of the gate tower, the celebration arch, the drum bell tower, the front hall, the main hall, the scriptorium and the blessing chamber, etc. Inside the main hall stood a 2.7-meter high stature of the Matriarch who wore beautiful headgear and dress, accompanied by four maids on both sides, holding seals, earthenware vessels and fans in their hands. A carriage was also placed in the hall. In front of the gate tower stood two flagpoles, as high as 20 meters, a relic traced back to the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Historically, Tianjin served as an important shipping center. The geographic advantage also contributed to the prosperity of the temple. In front of the temple stood a big square where fairs and performances used to be held to entertain the deities as well as the local people. It was said that in the first year of his reign, the Qing emperor Kangxi, then on his inspection tour in Tianjin, visited the temple, and watched the performances in the fair. On the occasion, he ordered a flag given to the fair. Since then, the popular fair became an 'imperial celebration' ( 皇會 Huanghui ), which used to be held on the 23rd day of the 3rd lunar month, the alleged birthday of the Heavenly Matriarch. On that day, the streets near the temple were thronged with people who came to watch the parades and performances. Musical instruments, showers, lion dances and the applause of the spectators were the highlights of the day. A book entitled the Record of the Imperial Celebration in Tianjin ( 《天津皇會考記》 Tianjin Huanghui Kaoji ) said: 'the whole event lasts overnight. When the candlelight and incense went out, it was already the dawn of a new day'.
Today, two wings of the temple house the Tianjin Folk Culture Museum, highlighting the history of Tianjin city, the temple itself and the imperial celebration. In the museum, we see bricks from the Tianjin city walls of the Ming dynasty, replicas of canal transportation systems of the Qing dynasty, relics of folk culture and machinery of the Qing dynasty, etc.
Today, the coastal areas are not the only places where temples in memory of the Heavenly Matriarch are seen. Similar temples exist even in remote inland areas such as Zhengyan, Guizhou and Zhijiang, Hunan.