The significance of ancestral tablets
Ancestor worship is a practice that occupies a supreme role in the religious and social life of Chinese society. Deeply rooted in the all-important virtue of filial piety, much of its associated rites have remained unchanged since Confucian times. Integral to the practice of ancestor worship are ancestral tablets – sacred objects in which the spirit of deceased ancestors are believed to reside.
Ancestral tablets vary in shape and size from place to place. Traditionally carved from wood, it is composed of three pieces – a square pedestal and two oblong upright pieces of unequal length. The longer piece terminates in a round knob that is set into the rear of the pedestal while the shorter piece is fitted into the front so that both appear as a single piece.
The outer surface of the first piece is inscribed with the name and year of the reigning dynasty, the title of the deceased, the deceased’s personal name and surname, and the name of the son who installs the tablet. The day and hour of birth and death as well as the place of burial are recorded on the inner surface. The inscriptions are in no way distributed in a uniform way on the tablet and can vary. Married deceased women may at times share a single tablet with their husbands or be represented by their own tablet.
The Chinese believe that a person has three souls. Upon passing, one stays with the entombed body at the grave, one moves on to the afterlife and one will take up residence in a dedicated ancestral tablet. Ancestral tablets were traditionally enshrined on an altar where they were venerated by the head of the family. Wealthy families may have a dedicated ancestral hall for this while others may install ancestral tablets on the same altar of the household deities.
Offerings of incense, candle and food are made to show reverence to one’s elders or ancestors, as part of the continued practice of filial piety that extends beyond death. The Chinese believe that the spirits of the ancestors will continue watch over the family and bless them; therefore, great care and respect must be shown to spirits of the ancestors as the protectors of a family’s fortunes. Due to lack of space for altars and time to perform worshipping rites in modern times, ancestral tablets are nowadays commonly installed in temples, clan halls or memorial centres where caretakers will perform worship on behalf of the family.