DTS Final

Posted: April 14, 2012 by shihhsuanchou in Uncategorized

DTS403 Final essay

Shih Hsuan, Chou

The Spirit Tablet

The Chinese often compare themselves to the leaves of a big tree. As the tree grows and the branches spreads the leaves grow higher and higher from the ground. Then when time comes the leaves detach from their branches and fall back to the root where it was spawned. In this metaphor the bulk of the tree and its branches symbolize the bloodline, lineage from which one descends from, and ultimately to the root, which symbolizes both the founding ancestor as well as the ancestral homeland. It was common practice for Chinese to transfer their remains back home if they suffer the unfortunate fate of “dying as a guest.”  For the traditional Chinese, going home is the one and only option in life, or death for that matter.

However this dramatically changed from early twentieth century. Plagued by constant warfare and economical turmoil many fled from their home town in search of safety and opportunities in places such as Hong Kong, or further abroad to Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. The advent of the communist regime in China makes returning home even less probable. Adding to that in recent decades Chinese immigrants began to gain more acceptances from their host countries, and generations of ethnic Chinese are now born and raised without ever setting foot on the Chinese mainland. The idea of homeland became ambiguous: does it mean the country which one hold one’s citizenship? Or a place where one has only heard of in the stories of their grandparents?

It’s with these questions in mind I examine the spirit tablet, or ancestral tablet. The spirit tablet is a central part of traditional Chinese religion and spirituality, and continues to play an important role in contemporary religious, cultural rituals and festivities. I argue that the spirit tablet and the practices surrounding it serve as an important “actor” in producing the imagined homeland and Chinese identity. In the remainder of this article I will first introduce Chinese religious thoughts in general, then the specific practices and meanings surrounding the spirit tablet. Then it will be connected to the transnational context with the aid of examples provided from interview with Chinese Canadians. The article will then relate to other works concerning objects in production of identity.

To begin with an examination of the Spirit tablet in its transnational context, first one needs a basic understanding of Chinese religious traditions. According to, James Miller. Chinese religions typically display four main streams: worship of various spirits, gods and goddesses of folk belief and practice; Daoism; Buddhism; and ancestral worship and Confucius practice. There’s also a lack of a unitary source of authority in these religions, and the tendency toward syncretism. (Millar 2006,  208) In many ways Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism are complementary, and it is commonly said that they are “the Three Faiths in one.”Thus many Chinese accept Confucianism as a guide to daily living, have recourse to Taoist practitioners for ritual purifications and exorcisms, and employ Buddhist priests for funerals. (Martin 2001, 328)

This means that a woman can simultaneously hold Confucian values, belong to a Taoist temple, and pray for help to Guanyin, a Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion—and all without exclusive allegiance to any particular monk, nun, priest, priestess, or organization.(Millar 2006, 208) Sometimes this syncretism is seen as the evidence of lacking deep spirituality and commitment, but it also meant that certain practices, such as the offering of incense to a family altar, can exist regardless of the specific religious tendencies of the individuals. It also allowed a great diversity in practice exist among different regions and groups. The Chinese family altar is the cornerstone of family life for Chinese in many parts of the world. It is the tie that binds a dispersed family and serves as a focal point for viewing an extended family that includes the living, the dead, and those yet unborn. (Martin 2001, 329) Traditionally the altar stands in the central room of the house opposite the principal door. Such altars are meant to be publicly seen. Depending on the architecture of the house many altars are visible even from the streets. There is normally an incense pot on the left side of the altar, because this is the position of honor and is reserved for the Gods. While the spirit tablets are placed on the right side alongside their incense pot. Most of the altars have a backdrop that depicts some of the more popular deities. The newer, more prestigious backdrops are painted bright colors that glitter. Varying amounts of religious objects and ornaments, including written charms and souvenirs of visits to temples also decorates the altar. Frequently a Buddha’s image also stands on it. Meanwhile there’re also cases where only the spirit tablet of the ancestors is present on the altar, which shows the possibility of lacking a specific faith yet continuing the practice of offering to the ancestors (This situation will be further examined in the later part of this essay.) For the families who have the means the tablets of more distant forebears would be placed in an ancestral hall. The physical presence of the altar represents the family as a well-knit integrated unit. A house with two altars contains two families; a household with no altar usually considers itself part of another family, and its members will go to the house in which the altar resides for important rituals.( Martin 2001, 329)

Some scholarship classify Chinese ancestor worship accordingly into two separate cults, one is “a series of rites which express the unity of a lineage or lineage segment (the hall cult) and the other group of rites which continue the act of filial obedience to recently deceased forebears (the domestic cult).  The domestic cult revolves around tablets for the recently dead, which are worshiped in order to preserve the memory of the dead, to serve their needs and satisfy the demand of their slight authority. (Emily 1973, 93)Because of the location of these tablets within the home, the women of the house are often responsible for carrying out worship services for them. Worship of each tablet can continues in this way for three or four generations, then the tablet is destroyed and their places in the domestic cult come to an end. In some cases when there is no worship of the ancestors outside the domestic cult, the ancestor whose tablet had been destroyed is never worshiped again. In other cases, when there are ancestral halls, another tablet may be made and placed in the hall. The family tends to commemorate the death days of their closer ancestors or those whom they have personally known. On such occasions, the living members of the family serve its deceased members full meals complete with bowls and chopsticks, rice and oodles, and some of their favorite dishes. In this context, people treat ancestors almost as if they were still living kin. (Martin 2001, 330) Family members usually eat the food after the ancestors have supposedly eaten once the incense sticks have burned out, signifying the ancestors has finished their meal. Ancestors also receive food offerings during major festivals for the gods; domestic worship of the gods tends to occur on the 1st and 15th of every lunar month. While may not be physically distinctly, the hall cult differ from the domestic cult functionally. Names of the founding ancestor and his wife are often the most visible. In the case when ancestral tablets of deceased family members are concealed within a box it’s often the names of the founding ancestor and his wife (i.e. source of the lineage) visible on the outside. (Emily 1973, 117) Of course there’re variations in practices, as not all families can afford an ancestral hall to house the tablets for the ancestors separately, thus a lesser number of spirit tablet is maintained in the household altar alone. Sometimes the tablet of the recently deceased is destroyed relatively shortly after their funeral thus symbolizing a quicker unity with the rest of the ancestry. The belief system which the Spirit tablet originated from does not include a heaven in the Buddhist, or Christian sense for that matter. It holds that the dead exist in a shadowy netherworld and can communicate with and directly influence living relatives. For the Chinese, there is not sharp demarcation between birth and death. Rather, all humanity is considered to be part of an organic system; in yin-yang fashion, individuals are continually being born into and processed in it. But they do not experience final separation from it or death in the Westernized sense. To the Chinese, the system, life, and time itself are circular, and all are united with one another because of this circularity. Although with the ultimate form of spiritual ascension being different this circular perspective is consistent with both Buddhist and Taoist beliefs.  An example is the practice of placing the tablet of the recently deceased into a temple. Many believed that the daily prayers of the monks who reside in the temples could help the spirit of the deceased relieving their karma thus ascend to heaven/Nirvana. The most common prayer among many devout Chinese is for harmony, and it is frequently printed on door frames, charms, wedding cakes, and even the walls of homes. It is a prayer that is directed both to ancestors and gods. And, as indicated above, the members of the living family offer food and rituals in return for the harmony that they seek. People make all kinds of requests at the family altar: for example, helping a child pass an examination, curing the sick, and obtaining employment. Although the requests are not always met, devotees often feel renewed hope and comfort, in large part because of the rituals that unite deceased and living family members through the medium of the spirit tablets on the altar. Even the skeptical carry out the rituals—just in case.(Martin 2001, 334)

Then to what degree are the practices of ancestral worship preserved in the modern, and especially in the transnational context? Many factors challenge Chinese traditional values and customs. On the Chinese mainland one of the most devastating was the communist takeover and the subsequent “Cultural revolution”. This is also consistent in the transnational context as both conversion to Christianity or adoption of modern belief and secularism pose a great threat. However as mentioned before the one of the key feature of Chinese spirituality is syncretism. There is, on the one hand, the anticipated distancing from Chinese religions; while on the other, an interest, a will, and an effort made at religious and cultural recovery, for example, the diffused but persistent continuation in the idea of filial piety as a first step to moral development. The existence of the spiritual tablet and the series of rituals associated with it becomes a medium which traditional values, which is essential in the configuration of a Chinese identity, are conveyed by parents through practices to the next generation. In the discussion about women coping with contemporary religion and tradition, James Miller acknowledged that “women as grandmothers, mothers, and primary caregivers, propagate filial piety in the contemporarily small extended or nuclear family, but who continue to look after the often patrilocal and patriarchal ancestral shrines at home and in temples. In so doing, some women continue to transmit the hierarchical values of senior and junior implicit within the relationships between parent and child, and older and younger siblings. By this means the women themselves gain definition and status; they remain at the heart of the family, binding all of its members together through the notion and practice of filial piety.” (Miller 2006, 213-214)An example of this is the ancestral tablets housed in Buddhist and Taoist institutions alike—for example, respectively, in the Fo Guang Shan temple in Mississauga, just west of Toronto, and in the Darcy Street Fung Loy Kok temple in downtown Toronto. Religious paraphernalia like paper gold nuggets, money printed as Hell Notes, paper clothes, cars, airplanes, stoves, houses, and paper versions of other such commodities may be burned as offerings to ancestors on special days of remembrance, such as Qing Ming festival, the third day of the third month in the lunar calendar, marked off for sweeping the tomb. People also attend prayers and recite Buddhist scriptures on Qing Ming festival to pray for the deceased.

We certainly see that religious practice like worshiping the spirit tablet is being preserved, and then the question is why. Practicing religion, by tying immigrants to each other and symbolically to the homeland, helps mitigate the disruption and stress of migration. Religion also maintains and reinforces immigrants’ national or ethnic identity with their home country. Social networks and organizational resources of religious organizations not only help immigrants define their identities, but they also combat prejudice and discrimination in their new society (Karen 2005, 15-16). The spirit tablet embodies this process, especially in the worship of distant ancestors as it shows the agnatic solidarity which large groups of agnates ordinarily participate. It emphasizes on the continuity of the family line through agnatic descendants; the ancestors of a family without interruption of its line include only its patrilineal predecessors, or members sharing the last name. (Lynn 1994)The fact that the writings on many spirit tablets includes the location of their ancestral homeland-sometimes even to the specific address in a certain province, country, village, street- gives a material, visual affirmation of continuous lineage tracing back and belonging to the ancestral homeland. In fact many Chinese travel to their ancestral homeland so that they can visit the burial places or the ancestral halls of their ancestors at least once in their lives, because in Confucianism living relatives have an obligation to tend such places on regular basis if at all possible or at least to visit them.(Martin 2001, 324) The spirit tablets’ emphasize on the shared continuous last name also helped in producing solidarity and belonging. Although a same Chinese last name can have distinct origins, there’s an ideological, if not mystical sense of solidarity shared by the Chinese having the same last name, this is illustrated by one of the most remarkable of the social structures evolved by immigrant Chinese: the “Same surname associations”. It reinforces the sense of a shared origin.

To further demonstrate the relationship individuals have with the spirit tablet two examples will be shown here. For the purpose of this essay interview were conducted with Canadian Chinese youth with mixed results among them there’re some who having their family converted to Christianity thus rejecting worshiping spirit tablets all together. Others depending on the difference of religious belief have different practices and dynamic relationship with the tablet. The first example is the case of Steven Shen. He immigrated to Canada ten years ago along with his parents from Hong Kong. According to Shen: “I was eleven when my family immigrated here. So it was kind of hard to leave everything I knew behind, you know, friends, schools, and our old place. It also takes some time to get used to the new school system. But at least I got “A” for my math classes.(laugh) But we often go back to Hong Kong during summer and winter breaks so it wasn’t that bad.” Shen provided more details about his family: His father’s family was originally from the nearby Guang Dong province, and his grandfather went to Hong Kong to search for work, where he met his future wife and eventually settled down. They gave birth to his father. His mother came from a family which has lived in Hong Kong previously for generations. His grandfather passed away when he was only 2 years old, leaving his grandmother tending the spirit tablet of both the ancestors and thee grandfather. When his grandmother passed away three years ago. Problem then rises as to what to do with the spirit tablets. According to Shen: “After my grandma past away there was no one left at Hong Kong to take care of the tablets. So my Dad decided to bring them here to Canada. They’re now on an altar in the living room. My parents burn incense and put it on the pot in front of the tablets every day, and put offerings on festivals like the New Year and some other occasions. I don’t remember all of them.” When asked about his religious beliefs he said: “My parents are Buddhist, but I am not particularly into any religion. But when my parents want me to bow to the tablets I do so. It’s just tradition, you know?” When asked what does he thinks or reminds him of when looking at the tablet or making an offering to it, he replied that: “My grandparents of course. And also the old house my grandma used to live in, all the times when we go there for family reunion and stuff.”  The example of Shen is a classical model of patrilineal inherent practice in the worship of ancestors. What’s different is that the tablet is being brought overseas and served for Shen as a reminder of his lineage as well as his homeland. The absence of ritual concerns over spirit tablet on his mother’s side shows the patrilineal nature of Chinese inherence and succession.

Another example emerged from the interviews is Jason (Si Yu) Wang, who was born in Canada. The story of his family is the very history of Chinese immigration. According to Wang, his family is of Hakka descent, which in itself is a story of long history of migration and Diaspora. His grandfather was born in the Fu-Jian province His grandfather left his hometown when he was still young. Part of the reason was his grandfather was one of those who rejected traditions as the cause of the backwardness of China and embraced western modernism and secularism, and got tired of the traditional lifestyle at home. In his journeys he met his future wife, and after the war broke out the grandparents of Wang fled to Taiwan along with thousands of other refugees. The rise of communism divided the two sides of the ocean, but not all communication was cut. According to Wang:”My grandfather told me that he heard news from the mainland about the destruction caused by the Cultural Revolution, when he heard that the ancestral hall of our family at the Home town was destroyed by the communists he decided to acquire a spirit tablet for the ancestors.” Whether it is out of a new found spirituality or nostalgia, Wang’s grandfather acquired a spirit tablet which became the centerpiece of their new domestic altar, and center of religious rituals and festivities.  The tablet he acquired was very simple, with only “Ancestors of the Wang family” and the Ancestral homeland on it. And according to Wang’s parents neither was the family too concerned with keeping up with every single religious festivals. Wang’s grandparents would have five children in Taiwan and among them is Wang’s father. Wang’s grandparents would manage to send Wang’s father abroad for study and eventually Wang’s father end up settling in Canada. When talking about the spirit tablet, Wang said that: “Every time we go back to Taiwan to my grandparents’ place, the first thing we do after we step into the house is light the incense and go in front of the altar. My parents always say: ‘go light the incense and tell the ancestors that you’re back home’.” When asked about where he considers as his “home” Wang replied that: “My home is at Toronto of course. I was born and raised here. But I also have two other ‘homeland.’ When people ask me about my ancestry I say Fu-Jian, but when people ask me where’s your family from I say Taiwan. I know it’s kind of weird but considering we Hakka people originally was from northern China, perhaps I have a third homeland as well! We migrate all over the place, build castles, yeah, castles(referring to the walled villages or Tu-Lou which is a style of architecture built to defend from wild animals, bandits, pirates, etc.),we survive and we triumph every time, everywhere. ” The conversation with Wang at this point went off-topic for a short while regarding the historical legacy of the Hakka people.

Back to the topic of spirit tablets, the tablet at the Wang household is unique in the sense that it was not born out of the normal inheritance process. Wang’s grandfather acquired the tablet after losing his homeland, and arguably his lineage by the destruction of the ancestral hall at home. The acquisition of the tablet re-established his link with his ancestors and thus his lineage even though he did not have any specific religious tendencies. Wang’s parents grew up receiving the knowledge of their ancestry and lineage, and with the aid of actual practice of offering and bowing internalized the knowledge of the imagined homeland, and eventually this knowledge would be passed on to Wang, by not only the retelling of the story of their family orally, but also visually and physically through the ritual of offering incense and bowing to the spirit tablet and acknowledging it as “coming home.” And the indication of yet another homeland in mainland China by the spirit tablet served to construct Wang’s imagination of the migrant Hakka identity.

The ability of Spirit tablet to influence the creation of an identity has many parallels. Miller D. describes objects have the ability to fade out of existence, yet shape the practice of people simply by the virtue of being present in the environment. As Miller put it “They are the landscape of our imagination, as well as the cultural environment to which we adapt. (Millar d. 2010, 53)While unlike the invisible objects described by Miller, the spirit tablets received all the attention in the world with the whole system of religious significances related to it. But for the younger generations who have being influenced by modernism and secularism those religious significances are often lost, especially for the young children growing up they wouldn’t and couldn’t completely comprehend the symbolism it conveys. Yet the spirit tablet being physically present in the environment, served as part of the system of things and objects. Children was brought up participating in the rituals and thus habitually tuned to the cultural values surrounding it.

Gannon, Martin J. 2001. Understanding global cultures: metaphorical journeys through 23 nations. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications.

Leonard, Karen I. 2006. Immigrant faiths: transforming religious life in America. Lanham, MD [etc.]: AltaMira Press.

Martin, Emily. 1973. The cult of the dead in a Chinese village. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Miller, D. 2010) Stuff. London: Polity Press.

Miller, James. 2006. Chinese religions in contemporary societies. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Pan, Lynn. 1994. Sons of the yellow emperor: a history of the Chinese diaspora. New York: Kodansha International.


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