What Is A Spirit Tablet?-Chinese Memorial Tablet

A “Memorial Tablet” is referred to as a “spirit tablet,” “ancestral tablet,” or “ancestor tablet” in English. It is a wooden or paper plaque on which the names of deities, ancestors, or other revered figures are written or carved. These tablets symbolize the presence of the deity or ancestor and are used for ritualistic ceremonies. The practice of placing and honoringMemorial Tablet has deep roots in traditional Chinese culture and is observed in households, memorial halls, tombs, and ancestral temples.

Spirit Tablet meaning

According to Chinese folk traditions, when a person passes away, their family creates aMemorial Tablet as a place for the departed soul. The size and format of Memorial Tablet can vary, but they are typically rectangular wooden boards with a base for stability, suitable for placement on a table. The inscription onMemorial Tablet traditionally used classical calligraphy, such as ancient Song-style script with thick vertical strokes and thin horizontal lines, or more modern styles like regular script, clerical script, and Wei dynasty script, to convey a sense of solemnity and reverence.

Originally associated with Confucianism,Memorial Tablet also found adoption in Chinese Buddhism from the Song dynasty onwards. In Buddhism,Memorial Tablet is inscribed with the posthumous Buddhist name of the deceased and is placed on a Buddhist altar or other designated location for worship. Additionally, in Buddhism,Memorial Tablet can be categorized into “disaster-preventing spirit tablets” and “transcendent spirit tablets,” used respectively for the living and the deceased in different ritual contexts.

Meaning of Spirit Tablet

On the vast land of China, a profound and solemn tradition is passed down through generations: the creation of memorial tablets for departed loved ones, known as “Memorial Tablet” (páiwèi). This enduring tradition embodies the Chinese people’s reverence for life, awe of death, and belief in the existence of the soul. A Memorial Tablet is not merely a wooden board; it serves as a symbolic link connecting the living and the deceased, as well as the tangible and the spiritual realms.

In the Chinese worldview, death is not seen as the end, but rather as the departure of the soul from the physical body, entering another realm. To ensure peace for the departed in that realm and to express the living’s nostalgia and sorrow, the crafting ofMemorial Tablet has become a significant ritual. This custom is passed down from generation to generation, ingrained in the bloodlines of every Chinese individual.

The production of a Memorial Tablet does not adhere to strict specifications or forms, but generally, it is a rectangular wooden board of moderate size for easy placement. Carefully chosen for its sturdy texture and clear grain, the wood symbolizes the indomitable spirit of the departed. A base is often included beneath the board, providing stability on a table for theMemorial Tablet to stand, receiving the reverence of the living.

The calligraphy onMemorial Tablet is considered an art form. In ancient times, the use of classical typefaces like Lao Songti was prevalent. These characters featured thick vertical strokes and thin horizontal lines, projecting an air of dignity and grandeur. The writing flowed from top to bottom, arranged neatly, with each character encapsulating the respect and mourning of the scribe. With the changing times, modern individuals often use regular script, clerical script, or Wei dynasty script forMemorial Tablet calligraphy. While these typefaces differ, they share the common traits of solemnity and reverence, effectively conveying feelings of admiration for the departed.

The inscriptions on Memorial Tablet typically include the name of the departed, dates of birth and death, and the relationship with the living. These details are meticulously recorded on the Memorial Tablet, becoming the final imprint of the departed in this world. Whenever the living gaze upon this information, memories of shared moments with the departed naturally flood their hearts, invoking an inexhaustible sense of longing.

The use of Memorial Tablet is widespread in Chinese communities, visible in both urban and rural settings, affluent households and those of common folk.Memorial Tablet is not only employed to commemorate deceased family members but is also used in the worship of deities, Buddha, and Daoist ancestors. During significant holidays or memorial days, people establish Memorial Tablet at home, lighting incense and presenting offerings, expressing both nostalgia for departed loved ones and reverence for spiritual entities.

The presence of Memorial Tablet establishes a unique connection between the living and the departed. Through the act of worshiping Memorial Tablet, the living can share their joys and sorrows with the departed, seeking their blessings and protection. Simultaneously, the departed, through Memorial Tablet, convey their love and expectations to the living. This form of communication transcending life and death may be challenging to express in words but resonates deeply in the hearts of every Chinese individual.

As societal changes and technological advancements progress, the form and significance of Memorial Tablet have evolved. Traditional woodenMemorial Tablet are gradually being replaced by those made from materials like paper or electronic displays, making the production of Memorial Tablet more convenient and environmentally friendly. The calligraphy and decoration of Memorial Tablet now emphasize personalization and artistic expression, reflecting modern interpretations and emotional expressions for the departed.

In recent times, as urban residents increasingly move away from the practice of using Memorial Tablet for rituals, memorializing practices have shifted towards displaying or hanging photos or portraits of the departed. Some funeral service providers have introduced innovations, designing small memorial tablets made of materials like marble, jade, or plastic, often paired with cremation urns, providing a modern yet culturally resonant option for commemorating the departed. This approach aligns with traditional customs while offering convenience and safety, garnering widespread acceptance.

Memorial Tablet custom

With the changes in history and social progress, urban residents in China are increasingly less inclined to use traditionalMemorial Tablet for mourning rituals. Instead, they often display or hang photos and portraits of the deceased as objects of remembrance. In recent years, some funeral service providers in China, aiming to uphold the rich tradition of funeral culture, have innovated by designing and producing small memorial tablets made of materials such as marble, jade, or plastic. These tablets are paired with cremation urns and are used for memorial services. This practice not only aligns with traditional customs but also enhances safety and convenience, gaining widespread acceptance among the public.

In Chinese traditional customs, the concept of “安” (ān), meaning peace or tranquility, holds paramount significance in honoring the departed. Expressions like “安息” (ānxī), “安魂” (ānhún), “安灵” (ānlíng), “安放” (ānfàng), “安葬” (ānzàng), and “入土为安” (rùtǔ wéi ān) all emphasize the desire for peace. When people visit funeral homes to pay respects, the common practice is to move the cremation urn containing the ashes of the deceased in and out of the facility. However, this practice might not truly embody the essence of “安.” Many families find it challenging to carry multiple cremation urns, often belonging to parents and grandparents, up and down stairs, risking physical strain and potential damage to the urns. In ancient times, moving a coffin was a serious and solemn matter, with the belief that once laid to rest, it should not be easily disturbed. Unless absolutely necessary, the ancient practice of relocating remains (迁灵, qiān líng) was reserved for specific reasons. Modern cremation urns serve as substitutes for coffins, and according to traditional customs, once placed, they should not be moved easily except for relocation or burial.

Memorial Tablet in Confucianism

Originally used in Confucianism, Memorial Tablet (páiwèi) were wooden tablets that recorded the official rank and name of the deceased. During the Song Dynasty, the Buddhist Chan sect adoptedMemorial Tablet for both the deceased and the living. Buddhist memorial tablets are divided into two types: (1) 消灾Memorial Tablet (xiāo zāi páiwèi) for the living, often using red or pink paper instead of wooden tablets. Monastics perform rituals to seek blessings from Buddhas and Bodhisattvas for the living person, aiming to ward off disasters and ensure success in endeavors. It’s worth mentioning that believers often need to contribute a substantial amount of money to have these memorial tablets established. (2) 往生Memorial Tablet (wǎngshēng páiwèi) for the deceased, typically made from yellow paper. Monastics conduct rituals to assist the spirit of the deceased (similar to a spirit tablet) in attaining rebirth in the Western Pure Land. Traditional Buddhist families commonly use woodenMemorial Tablet for memorial purposes.

Typically inscribed with the characters 天地君亲师 (tiāndì jūn qīn shī), which translate to heaven, earth, sovereign, family, and teacher, respectively.

History of Memorial Tablets

The history of memorial tablets can be traced back to ancient China, representing a unique product of Confucian beliefs and the feudal system. In Confucian philosophy, where the belief in the immortality of the soul prevailed, a profound emphasis on morality, rituals, and interpersonal relationships existed. To express reverence and nostalgia for ancestors and deceased loved ones, people began to establish memorial tablets at home for their veneration and worship.

In feudal society, memorial tablets gradually evolved into a systematic presence. Whether belonging to royal nobility or common citizens, households would set up memorial tablets to pay homage to their ancestors. The crafting of memorial tablets became increasingly sophisticated, transitioning from simple wooden boards to intricately carved and beautifully adorned works of art. Simultaneously, a strict set of standards for inscription, such as font selection and arrangement, emerged, reflecting the respect and commemoration for the departed.

In ancient times, due to the absence of the belief in reincarnation in the common folk, people generally believed that after death, the spirit would attach itself to physical objects. As a result, memorial tablets and the feudal system received significant attention. The continuation of the family line, particularly having male descendants, was crucial for performing ancestral rites. Information about ancestors, such as names and titles, and auspicious phrases were commonly inscribed on memorial tablets. This practice symbolized the attachment of ancestral spirits to the tablets, receiving offerings and worship.

Beyond individual households, ancient China also featured places like ancestral temples and clan halls dedicated to honoring ancestral memorial tablets. Ancestral temples were established to venerate successive monarchs and ancestors, while clan halls were constructed for the worship of family ancestors. These locations typically had specialized priests or caretakers responsible for the maintenance and worship of memorial tablets.

With the introduction and development of Buddhism and Taoism, the application of memorial tablets broadened. In Buddhism, memorial tablets were used to honor Buddha, Bodhisattvas, and other sacred entities. In Taoism, tablets were employed to venerate immortals and ancestral masters. The integration of these religious memorial tablets with the folk tradition gave rise to the distinctive memorial tablet culture in China.

In modern times, as society underwent transformations and technology advanced, the form and essence of memorial tablets underwent certain changes. Traditional wooden tablets gradually gave way to new materials such as paper and electronic tablets, making the production of memorial tablets more convenient and environmentally friendly. Simultaneously, there is a heightened focus on personalized and artistic inscription and decoration, reflecting the unique understanding and emotional expression of modern individuals towards the departed.

What is the significance of the ancestral tablet?

Ancestral memorial tablets hold profound significance in Chinese traditional culture, serving not only as the central focus of family rituals but also as a crucial vessel for the Chinese spirit of respecting elders, honoring ancestors, and filial piety.

Firstly, ancestral memorial tablets represent the continuity of the family and the passing down of bloodlines. In the Chinese perspective, the prosperity and flourishing of a family, as well as the success of future generations, are closely linked to the blessings of ancestors. Therefore, establishing ancestral memorial tablets, offering homage and reverence to ancestors, is an expression of respect and gratitude towards them. It is also a prayer for the ancestors’ blessings, hoping that the family lineage will endure through generations.

Secondly, ancestral memorial tablets embody the Chinese emphasis on filial piety. Filial piety is a traditional virtue of the Chinese nation and a core element of Confucian thought. Through the worship of ancestral memorial tablets, people express their nostalgia and gratitude towards their parents. It also serves as an educational tool for future generations, reminding them to remember the kindness of their parents and to inherit and promote the spirit of filial piety.

Furthermore, ancestral memorial tablets carry the historical memory of Chinese culture. Throughout the long years, ancestors contributed strenuous efforts for the prosperity of their families and the flourishing of the nation, leaving behind valuable spiritual wealth and cultural traditions. By venerating ancestral memorial tablets, people can commemorate the historical achievements and cultural contributions of their ancestors. It also allows for the inheritance and promotion of the outstanding traditional culture of the Chinese nation.

What is the use of spirit tablet?

Spirit tablets, also known as “Shen Zhu,” “Shen Zhu Pai,” or “Shen Wei,” are widely employed in Chinese society for the commemoration and ritualistic honoring of the departed. Typically inscribed with the name and dates of birth and death of the deceased, spirit tablets serve as symbolic focal points for families, clans, or religious groups to pay homage and remember those who have passed.

The functions of spirit tablets are prominently manifested in the following aspects:

Rituals and Offerings: Spirit tablets serve as the locus for rituals dedicated to the departed. On specific occasions such as Qingming Festival or the Ghost Festival, family members or friends present offerings and burn ritualistic items, expressing their fond memories and deep respect for the deceased.

Remembrance and Reflection: As symbols of the souls of the departed, spirit tablets bear the weight of the living’s fond recollections. Through the act of worshiping spirit tablets, the living can reminisce about the times shared with the departed, cherishing memories of their appearances, personalities, and life stories.

Spiritual Consolation: Spirit tablets, to some extent, provide solace for the living seeking emotional support. When faced with life’s challenges and hardships, paying respects to spirit tablets allows the living to feel the support and encouragement emanating from the departed, thereby boosting confidence and fortitude.

Family Heritage: In certain families, spirit tablets not only represent commemoration of the departed but also carry the historical and cultural legacy of the family. Through generations of spirit tablet rituals, family members deepen their understanding of familial history and culture, fostering a sense of unity and identity.

Expression of Religion or Belief: In some religious or belief systems, spirit tablets hold special sacred significance. For instance, in Buddhism, they may be considered incarnations of Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, while in Taoism, they may be associated with deities or ancestral masters. These tablets not only symbolize reverence and worship for divine entities but also serve as vital locations for followers to engage in spiritual practices and seek blessings.

In summary, spirit tablets play a multifaceted role in Chinese society. They serve as a means for the living to express respect and remembrance for the departed, offer solace and spiritual support, preserve family history and culture, and embody sacred meanings within religious or belief frameworks.

What is written on a Chinese ancestral tablet?

Ancestral tablets in China typically bear inscriptions containing essential information about the ancestors, including their names, titles, and dates of birth and death. At the top of the tablet, one might find phrases like “Offering to the Ancestors” or “The Ancestral Spirit Tablet of the So-and-so Family Through Generations,” expressing the act of offering and venerating the ancestors. In the middle section, the names of ancestors are inscribed according to generational hierarchy and seniority, such as “Mr. So-and-so” or “Mrs. So-and-so.” For significant ancestors, additional details like titles or accomplishments may be included, such as “Founding Ancestor,” “Great Ancestor,” “Distinguished Ancestor,” or “Distinguished Matron.” On the sides of the tablet, one may find sacrificial couplets or verses expressing nostalgia and gratitude towards the ancestors.

It’s worth noting that variations in the inscription of ancestral tablets may exist among different regions and families. However, the overarching purpose is to convey respect and fond remembrance for the ancestors, as well as a commitment to the preservation and reverence of family lineage and culture. Additionally, with the development of time and societal changes, some modern families may introduce innovations and variations in the inscription of ancestral tablets.

How do you use ancestral spirit?

The utilization of memorial tablets is a solemn ceremony aimed at expressing respect and fond remembrance for the departed. Below are the fundamental steps involved in using memorial tablets:

Prepare the Memorial Tablet: Choose a suitable memorial tablet, typically crafted from wood or metal. Ensure that the tablet bears inscriptions containing essential details about the departed, such as their name, dates of birth and death.

Placement: Position the memorial tablet in an appropriate location, such as an altar or ancestral shrine. Maintain the cleanliness and solemnity of the memorial tablet.

Burn Incense and Offerings: Light incense, bow in reverence to the memorial tablet, and present offerings such as fruits, tea, or other symbolic items.

Silent Reflection: Quietly reflect on the life and contributions of the departed, silently mourning and expressing respect.

Rituals and Ceremonies: Conduct rituals and ceremonies in accordance with local customs or religious beliefs. Different regions and cultural backgrounds may have varied ways of conducting worship and specific ceremonial norms.

Preserve Family History and Culture: Through the worship of ancestral memorial tablets, delve into the history and cultural traditions of the family. This fosters a deeper understanding of family heritage, enhancing familial cohesion and a sense of identity.

It is important to note that when using memorial tablets, one should adhere to established etiquette to demonstrate respect and genuine remembrance. Additionally, a balanced and rational perspective on ancestral culture and traditions is encouraged, avoiding excessive superstition or blind devotion.

What is the spirit tablet in Buddhism?

In Buddhism, memorial tablets hold special significance and serve distinct purposes. They are regarded as identification cards, determining each individual’s position for rebirth in the Pure Land of the Western Paradise in both the realms of life and afterlife. Simultaneously, these tablets are considered passes, admission tickets, and assigned seats, enabling sentient beings to enter the sacred precincts and find their designated places.

Buddhist memorial tablets typically bear the names and titles of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, ancestors, and beings in the afterlife, representing their identities and positions. These tablets are enshrined in temples or home Buddhist altars, receiving veneration and offerings from devotees. By venerating these tablets, practitioners express reverence and gratitude towards Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and other revered entities, seeking their blessings and benevolence.

Moreover, within Buddhism, there exists a particular type of tablet known as the “Longevity Tablet,” also referred to as the blessing tablet or the tablet for extended life. This type of tablet is set up for living beings in the world of the living to dispel calamities, prolong life, and pray for well-being. By offering the Longevity Tablet, practitioners seek the blessings and protection of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, wishing for the safety, health, and success of themselves and their families.

It is essential to note that Buddhist memorial tablets are not instruments of superstition or worship but rather a means of expressing respect and seeking blessings. When using these tablets, adherence to Buddhist doctrines and ritual propriety is crucial, maintaining a devout and pure state of mind. Additionally, a rational perspective on the role and significance of memorial tablets is encouraged, avoiding excessive dependence or superstition.

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