Spirit tablet

A spirit tablet, memorial tablet, or ancestral tablet,[1] is a placard used to designate the seat of a deity or past ancestor as well as to enclose it. The name of the deity or past ancestor is usually inscribed onto the tablet. With origins in traditional Chinese culture, the spirit tablet is a common sight in many East Asian countries where any form of ancestor veneration is practiced. Spirit tablets are traditional ritual objects commonly seen in temples, shrines, and household altars throughout China and Taiwan.[2]

Spirit tablet
Spirit tablets for ancestors in Hong Kong
Chinese name
Literal meaningspirit master sign
Alternative Chinese name
Literal meaningspirit seat
Second alternative Chinese name
Literal meaningspirit sign
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabetbài vị
Chữ Hán
Korean name
Hangul1. 위패
2. 신위
Hanja1. 位牌
2. 神位
Japanese name

General usage

A spirit tablet is often used for deities or ancestors (either generally or specifically: i.e. you might have one for your grandmother or one for your entire family tree). Shrines are generally found in and around households (for household gods and ancestors), in temples for specific deities, or in Ancestral halls or for the clan's founders and specific ancestors. In each place, there are specific locations for individual spirit tablets for ancestors or one or another particular deity. A spirit tablet acts as an effigy of a specific deity or ancestor. When used, incense sticks or joss sticks are usually burned before the tablet in some kind of brazier or incense holder. Sometimes fruit, tea, pastries, or other offertory items are placed near the tablet to offer food to that particular spirit or divinity.

In Chinese folk religion a household will have one or more tablets for specific deities and family ancestors:

  • One outside the house at the front door on the ground, dedicated to Tudigong, an earth deity. This tablet usually reads: 門口土地財神 (門口土地福神 less commonly) (Simplified: 门口土地财神, 门口土地福神).
  • Some houses will have a tablet at or near the gate which reads 門官福神 (Simplified: 门官福神)possibly dedicated to the door gods.
  • One near the front door, and at or around eye level dedicated to the Jade Emperor. Generally, but not always, this tablet will be above the tablet dedicated to Tudigong. This tablet reads: 天官賜福 (Simplified: 天官赐福).
  • One in the kitchen, dedicated to Zao Jun, the kitchen god which reads: 定福灶君 in both traditional and simplified characters.
  • One which is dedicated to the Landlord god, Dizhu Shen (similar to Tudigong but not the same). This tablet comes in several forms. The simple form which reads 地主神位(in both traditional and simplified script) or a longer, more complex form which comprises two couplets commonly reading: 前后地主財神,五方五土龍神 (Simplified: 前後地财神,五方五土龙神).
  • Two in the house, usually at least one in the living room. These tablets will usually be put in a cabinet, similar to a Japanese butsudan household shrine and they will be usually for a family's ancestors and some other deity which may or may not be represented by a spirit tablet.

In their most simple form the spirit tablets can simply be a piece of red paper with the words written vertically (in mainland China and in Hong Kong). More complex forms exist, these could be: full, small shrines made of tile, wood, metal or other material; statues and attendants with text; small posters with incense places and so on. A common form of the tablet for Tudigong (as seen in Guangdong, China), for example, consists of a baked tile which has the core text of the tablet (門口土地財神), flanked by two additional couplets reading: "戶納千祥, 門迎百福" (Simplified: "户纳千祥, 门迎百福") meaning something close to "May my household welcome a great deal of auspiciousness, may my doors welcome hundreds of blessings".

In Taoism, spirit tablets are often used for ancestors. Sometimes spirit tablets are found before or below statues of deities, which represent the enclosed spirit of the deity.

In Buddhism, spirit tablets are used in the same manner for ancestors, wandering spirits, demons, hungry ghosts, and even the living (for the perpetual blessing of the donor). In Japanese Buddhism, tablets are used in funeral rites and stored in the home butsudan. Tablets are also common in Japanese temples.

In Korean culture, spirit tablets are of great importance in ancestral rites called jesa, as they are the centerpieces of food offerings and represent the spiritual presence of the deceased.

See also


  1. Li, Xiaoxiang; Fu, Chunjiang; Goh, Geraldine (2004). Origins of Chinese people and customs (Revised ed.). Singapore: Asiapac Books. p. 130. ISBN 978-981-229-384-8. ancestral tablet
  2. "Ancestors and Deities: Chinese Spirit Tablets". Museum of Anthropology. University of Missouri. Retrieved September 19, 2011.
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