Research Question

Research Question:

Regarding the following research on the topic, I would like to do further research on the traditions and practices related to the spirit tablet, and how they are adapted, or not, in the transnational context. I am also interested in the difference between an inherited spirit tablet and an acquired spirit tablet. Do they hold the same meaning? How does the spirit tablet shape the owner’s image of him/herself and his/her relationship with the imagined homeland, especially for the second/third generation immigrants?


Object Social/ Cultural Context As mentioned in previous parts, spirit tablets dedicated to ancestors are often put alongside with tablets dedicated to deities on the family altar, and food and incense are offered to it on prayers or special occasions. In the case of a family member’s death, a tablet dedicated to that particular person would be placed next to the tablet of ancestors and deities. After the period of mourning is over the tablet of the deceased person would be disposed thus joined with the rest of the ancestry. Continuity of the blood line plays an essential role in traditional Chinese culture, and continuous offering to ancestral beings is considered as both the producer and the product of this process. However this process was interrupted by the destruction caused by the Chinese civil war and Cultural Revolution as many ancestral shrines and temples were destroyed during the process. For many Chinese both in and out of mainland China the new spirit tablet they acquired is one of the few things able to re-establish the tie with his or her ancestry.

Object Historical Context

Object Historical Context

A spirit tablet is usually found in a household which still uphold the tradition of giving offerings to deities and ancestors. Although it was a Taoist practice, many Chinese worship their ancestors along with Taoist or Buddhist deities or in some cases neither. In major festivities such as Chinese New Year, food and incense would be offered to the tablet. It was believed that the spirit tablet is the place where the ancestral spirits reside when they return to this world and answer to his/her descendants’ prayers. The spirit tablet is always kept by the head of the household and is passed on to the oldest sons. If the oldest son is unable or unwilling to inherent the tablet, it will then be passed down to the second son, and so on. In the case when a son have left home and established a new household, he can either go pray to the one at his old home, or acquire a one.  A spirit tablet is a major signifier of the establishment of a household, a home. Bowing and offering incense is often the signifying ritual of “returning” after a long absence. Furthermore, since the writing on the spirit tablet often includes the ancestral homeland, it creates a connection to the imagined ancestry.

Object Description for DTS403

Object Description

The object I intend to explore for the assignment is the Chinese Spirit tablet, or Ancestral tablet. It is usually placed on an altar at home, or in a temple as an alternative. The Spirit tablets maintain the general form: a rectangular plate on a base, its material, size, shape varies depends on the preference of the owner. Although it can be made of metal or plastic, the most common material is wood, especially those considered to be more prestigious such as Teak or Santalum album (Indian sandalwood). The height of the tablet is usually around 15 to 20 cm, but the exact measurement often differs based on the preference of the owner, which is often related to Feng shui. While a simple rectangular tablet on a base will serve the purpose, many will choose tablets with elaborate sculptures, carvings of traditional symbols on the frame or on the base such as lotuses. Some will also put the tablet into a glass case with wooden frame.

While spirit tablets vary in their appearances, it’s the writing on the tablet that distinguishes one from another. A tablet can be dedicated to specific deities, a specific deceased family member, or to ancestors in general. For example: “X氏始祖妣及祖宗三代考妣一切之神主” (Tablet of the ancestor of X family and his wife and couples of the three earlier generations) 考refers to male ancestors and 妣 refers to female ancestors. In some cases only male ancestors would be mentioned on the tablet. Others would also indicate the ancestral land of the family.

An empty spirit tablet is usually bought from a maker of religious goods, and the writings are added to it later. It’s also common to ask a monk or priest to bless the tablet to sanctify it. The price of the tablet can be hundreds of dollars depends on the material and the labor invested to make ut.