My 19 month old son and I goes out for a walk every day. We live on a circular road. We start and end on the same spot, in front of a Chinese temple.
They say memories are attached to where our parents takes us the most. It won’t surprise me if my son develops a penchant for old Chinese architecture. He sees it everyday.
I saw an exhibit about the town’s history at the local library last Sunday. Turns out that the temple houses old religious relics. It was built three decades ago, a project that placed 13 Taoist temples together under one roof. The reason was the redevelopment of the town into a residential and commercial area (it used to host a dump site and big sand quarries along with scattered kampung villages). Understandably there were objections but eventually everyone decided to follow the government’s plan.
Guanyin and Mama Mary
I attended a wedding a few years ago and had an interesting conversation with the groom about Cavite’s history. He shared anecdotes about his ancestor, General José Ignacio Paua. He was called “intsik” by his contemporaries in the Philippine revolution. He was ethnic Chinese from Fujian. Most people remembers him for arresting and stabbing Andres Bonifacio. But the groom, of course, skipped that part.
According to him, Paua had a hand in recovering Cavite City’s Our Lady of Porta Vaga after the revolution. As proof, he said, he wrote his name on a concealed part of the Marian icon.
How true is this story? I don’t know. I sat there, listened and ate lechon. But the part I remember clearly was that according to this guy, the Chinese during those days worshipped the Virgin Mary because to them she’s the same as their deity Guanyin (Mazu). This I know but what I found interesting was that the deity Guanyin is a popular devotion among Fujian locals, the place where Paua was born. He must have been himself a devotee of our Lady of Porta Vaga because to him she’s the same as the deity Guanyin.
In Ari Dy’s book “Chinese Buddhism in Catholic Philippines,” he writes, “they (devotees of Guanyin) notes that both (Guanyin and Virgin Mary) are maternal and compassionate figures and are therefore the same in that they serve the function of heeding the cries and supplications of their spiritual children.”
Catholic clergy in the Philippines doesn’t encourage syncretism but they don’t repress it. Guanyin was originally a male, before shattering into pieces, then reappearing as a woman. Some devotees refers to her as the Chinese Virgin Mary. There are images of her that resembles that of the mother of Christ. The one in the temple near our home are seated like Buddha without a child and does not have any likeness with traditional depictions of Mary.
Perhaps the historical importance of this syncretism was its religious and cultural creations that we see in our churches and museums to this day. Jeremy Clarke in his book “The Virgin Mary and Catholic Identities in Chinese History” suggests that “the rise in the production of Madonna influenced the manner Guanyin images were produced… these deliberate borrowings become more evident when one considers the development of trade in south east asia throughout the 18th century.”
The demand for Marian and other religious images employed hoards of Chinese sculptors during the Spanish era. Their religious roots, unconsciously or maybe consciously, influenced their work. This explains the countless religious icons bearing Chinese features (like Virgin Marys with chinita eyes) in our old churches. The Chinese in the 19th and 18th century Philippines seemed to have adapted seamlessly to the Filipino way of life, like they do in business.