Ancestors and Deities: Chinese Spirit Tablets

Ancestors and Deities: Chinese Spirit Tablets

Chinese religion, with its complex blend of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and folk traditions, involves a wide variety of practices and related paraphernalia. Spirit tablets are one type of ritual object commonly seen in temples and shrines and on household altars. Usually of wood, these small plaques bear inscriptions honoring ancestors, gods, and other important figures.

Ancestor worship, which is found in many forms in cultures throughout the world, has long been a key religious belief and practice in China. Throughout China, ancestors have traditionally been worshipped with sacrifices, shrines, and ancestor tablets. Ancestor tablets vary in size and shape in different parts of the country, but typically consist of a one- or two-piece tablet set up on a pedestal. The tablets are inscribed with the title and name of the deceased, dates of birth and death, and additional information such as place of burial and the name of the son who erects the tablet.

The customs involved in installing ancestor tablets in the family shrine also vary by region, although there are some common practices. Often two tablets are made – one of paper and one of wood. A ceremony takes place in which the ancestor’s spirit is transferred to the wooden tablet. Once the transfer is successful, the paper tablet is either burned or buried with the dead person. After the funeral service, the tablet is taken back to the family’s house and housed in a shrine. There are usually three shrines for ancestor tablets per house. The center shrine is reserved for the primary family ancestor, or Shin Chu, who is placed in the middle of the shrine. The rest of the middle shrine is filled with the next most important family members. All the other male family members’ tablets are housed in the other two shrines; occasionally their wives’ tablets join them.

In addition to ancestor tablets, there are also spirit tablets devoted to the host of deities that preside over the cosmos. These are placed in temples or wayside shrines and serve to honor these figures and to protect the community. This online exhibit presents ancestor tablets and general spirit tablets collected in China in the early 20th century.

References and Related Links

Addison, James Thayer. Chinese Ancestor Worship: A Study of its Meaning and its Relations with Christianity. (London: The Church Literature Committee of the Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui, 1925).

Graham, David Crockett. Folk Religion in Southwest China. (Washington: The Smithsonian Institution, 1961).

Hsu, Francis L. K. Under the Ancestor’s Shadow. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971).

Moore, Jennifer Oldstone. Taoism. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

Translations and additional information provided by professors Philip Clart, Department of Religious Studies, and Huaiyin Li, Department of History.

Text prepared by Amanda Sherry fall 2004

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