Ancestral Tablet Paper

About this object

History of use

Hakka and Cantonese people in Hong Kong who practice Chinese popular religion burn paper offerings as a way of transmitting them to gods and ancestors, as do other Chinese sub-ethnic groups. The imagery of the offerings represents actual objects such as clothing, money, gold and silver ingots, and even special objects believed to be desired by individual ancestors such as cars, servants, and houses. People believe that ancestors receive them as actual objects to be used by them in the underworld. These are offered during funeral rituals and at ancestors’ graves and tombs when ancestors are worshipped during festivals dedicated to this purpose, Ching Ming in the spring and Chung Yeung in the autumn. In addition, incense and candles are burned as offerings for both gods and ancestors. Larger sticks of incense are burned for high-ranking gods. The incense is made of ground sandalwood, rolled by hand onto the sticks. After being lit, it is stuck into an incense burner filled with sand. Usually three sticks are burned at a time, but sometimes only one. People also make offerings of food, wine, and tea to both gods and ancestors. The food offerings are carefully prepared and arranged on serving dishes, and placed on special tables in front of the altars in temples, halls for worshipping ancestors, and shrines dedicated to particular gods. There is a hierarchy of gods and the highest are worshipped first, although not all may be worshipped in sequence. The highest are the Heavenly Gods and individual high-ranking gods with responsibility for particular territories or people in particular occupational or other categories. These gods may have temples devoted to them. Below them are gods responsible for protecting villages, wells, etc. and who have shrines where they are worshipped. Below them are gods who protect households. These gods are sometimes represented by images, but are often represented by wooden plaques painted red and inscribed with the name of the god. The souls of ancestors reside in and can be worshipped in various places. The soul is believed to exist in the underworld, but it can also be worshipped through prayers and offerings at its grave or tomb. Souls can also be located and worshipped in tablets made of wood, paper, or cloth on which their names are written. They may be there as individuals, couples, or lineages, this practice varying among different sub-ethnic groups. There are differences among the ritual practices of various south Chinese sub-ethnic groups. Hakka people worship with a whole chicken, pork, and sometimes a whole roast pig, and squid, as well as fruit. They also do not differentiate the paper offerings, and simply burn them all together. Cantonese people offer them separately, and use a whole chicken, cut up, when worshipping gods, together with a fish, a bowl of rice, and fruit. Hakka people burn incense and candles on the 1st and 15th of the lunar month, while Cantonese people should worship every morning and evening. Low-grade paper offerings are also used to placate ghosts in some situations. Some groups make special offerings to wandering ghosts in the 7th month, when they are released from the underworld, or on other occasions.

Narrative

From a ritual goods shop in Tsuen Wan, Hong Kong. Mrs. Kwok Fung, Yin-ha, of Tsuen Wan, Hong Kong, gave invaluable help to Elizabeth Johnson in the selection and purchase of these offering materials, a complete set of those needed by a household, and in explaining their meaning and how they were used. This paper is a generic ancestral tablet, used to represent ancestors of a particular surname, which should be written at the centre top. The tablet would be pasted on a wall or in a shrine so that it could be worshipped and receive offerings.

Iconographic meaning

The colour red is auspicious and protective.

Physical description

Set of rectangular papers with printed black Chinese characters in three columns on a red background and flanked by two multicoloured dragons wrapped around columns on either side with a beam across the top. Rolled.