Ancestral Tablets and Their Significance in Chinese Culture

1. Introduction to ancestral tablets and their history

Ancestral tablets, or “spirit tablets,” have long been a central feature of Chinese ancestor worship. According to art historian Department of Asian Art, “The name of the tablet is generally inscribed in the middle, and the posthumous name of the ancestor along the top.” When direct members of a family die, there is no tablet made. Instead, the eldest son of the deceased will perform a dedication ritual at a family altar. This ritual is meant to ensure that the deceased continue to receive the same tributes and honors that are offered during ancestor worship. Legend has it that ancestral tablets have existed in China for thousands of years. Some believe that the practice of making spirit tablets dates back to the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600-1046 BC), while others argue that it is actually a relatively more modern practice stemming from the later part of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) through the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD). Whatever their true history, it is clear that ancestral tablets have both retained and evolved in their meanings and in the place they hold in Chinese society over time. For example, while kindred ancestors were initially thought to be able to provide tangible blessings to living family members, this belief eventually changed to one where ancestors were seen as distant and benevolent figures. As a result, ancestral tablets came to be a way for families to solidify a physical and emotional connection to past generations by fostering the acts of filial piety and the continuation of lineage.

1.1 Origin and development of ancestral tablets

Historically, records show that the practice of using ancestral tablets can be traced back to the period of the Emperors of the Wei Dynasty, dating from 221 A.D. to 265 A.D. However, ancestral tablets were not commonly used in the forms as practiced today until the Northern Song Dynasty, around the period of 960 A.D. to 1270 A.D. Over these years, the practice of using ancestral tablets went through its own development stages and minor adaptations before being established as a typical practice among Chinese families. At the beginning, ancestral tablets were used exclusively among the Chinese noble and royal families. As the design of the ancestral tablet developed into simpler forms, more and more Chinese families from different social classes began to adopt the practice. By the end of 1270 A.D., the practice of using ancestral tablets had become widespread throughout China. It was at this stage, too, all the key features and components of an ancestral tablet in its design as recognized in the practice today were materialized. For example, the practice of using the writing inscribed tablet, “Chinese: 石字碑, in pronunciation of ‘shi zi bei’, was first introduced in the design. And the use of the twelve zodiac signs, “Chinese: 十二生肖, in the pronunciation of ‘shi er sheng xiao’, positioned around a circle of twelve Chinese characters each corresponding to an animal sign, was also started around this period. It is interesting to note that, the practice of using ancestral tablets had never been disrupted in Chinese history despite the rise and fall of different ruling classes and the major social, cultural and political reforms in Chinese society. On the other hand, there were constant needs for modernization in the design of ancestral tablets to meet the change in life style and living standard. At early stage, changes were made on the type of materials used to produce ancestral tablets. For example, softwood and hardwood were initially used as the main construction material for a wooden ancestral tablet of higher quality. However, by 1870 A.D., the use of redwood, being a material of much higher quality and durability, had become popular as a symbol of social status. The westernization period has seen more removing details. By the time of Republic of China in the early 1900s, more and more families started to use the combined tablet for the worship of multiple generations of ancestors, as a means to save space in the urban areas and to reduce the burden for the worshiping ceremony for the families with offspring. Nowadays, with advances in the modern technology and knowledge in materials science, Chinese communities are no longer restricted to any particular designs and material for an ancestral tablet.

1.2 Cultural beliefs and practices surrounding ancestral tablets

Ancestor worship, known as Jing Zu, is an important part of Chinese cultural practices. It is often believed that the souls of the deceased will protect their descendants in return for the offerings and care that they receive. The offerings could be material, emotional or spiritual. These may include paper money, as well as food and drinks. Ancestral tablets are the most common objects of worship. They provide a medium for family members who use them to connect with their ancestors. It means that the blessings can be conveyed to everyone who is connected to the deceased. However, those without children cannot be worshiped as ancestors, and that is why Chinese people are eager to have children who can continue the worship after they pass away. The practice of ancestor worship helps bring the family closer. By honoring the deceased together, family members are more likely to support one another through the grieving process, which strengthens the enduring bond known as Guan Xi. In Chinese societies, ancestor worship is common, and it is not only a way of showing respect for ancestors but also a way of teaching values such as virtue and respect. After the death of a close family member, the memorial services and rituals associated with ancestor worship last for 49 days. This is because it is generally believed that the soul will spend time in different “worlds” before it continues on to reincarnation. On the 49th day, the soul will settle into its new place of reincarnation. This belief comes from Buddhism, which is a principle religion in China. By performing rituals on particular days, the family can ensure the wellbeing of the deceased. Such practices not only comfort the living, but also benefit the society because they help stabilize human emotions and discourage excessive grieving which can interfere with daily life. Nowadays, in a modern and busy society, it may not be always possible for a family member, especially if their ancestors were born in ancient and remote places, to travel back for every 49 days’ ceremony. Some people may even worry that what will happen if one day the ancestor worship cannot continue due to war or natural disasters. Ancestral tablets have become a compromise for such modern way of life. People would worship the ancestors at home using tablets, and more elaborate worship in the graveyards might only happen on the Qing Ming Festival, which largely celebrates and honors the ancestors and their family. How a family displays the tablets at home could reflect their status. For instance, the tablets might be enshrined in a grand family temple with elaborate offerings in rich families. However, for families who cannot afford such luxuries, the tablets can be displayed in a small wooden cabinet, which shows their humbleness and frugality as virtues. By having some forms of ancestor worship at home every day, a peaceful place will be created in the hearts and souls of those who practice the rituals. Nowadays, in the midst of our stressful and busy living environment, it is a sanctuary for people to relax and find spiritual nourishment, almost providing an antidote against the materialism, restlessness and dissatisfaction of modern life.

1.3 Evolution of ancestral tablet designs

With the government’s endeavor in promoting modernization and discouragement of superstition, there have been changes in the traditional customs and beliefs. A new kind of tablet design developed. It’s called the “Pastor Zhu La’s Grave-style Ancestral Tablet,” which features a crowd of animated figures in a feast. This kind of design is now popular among the Buddhists.

In the past, ancestral tablets were usually produced in animate forms. The ancestors were portrayed in a seated position with a stern and solemn look, suggesting their spiritual authority over the descendants’ world. The tablet as a whole would usually be more intricately designed and exquisitely decorated, symbolizing the family’s admiration and devotion to the ancestors. The practice of hanging the ancestral tablets onto the front wall of the main hall makes it necessary for the tablets to have details on all sides so that the ancestors’ spirits can “live” in it and observe the surroundings when summoned during the worship. The front and back surface may be covered by a pair of supreme doors, decorated with some characteristics of Chinese ancestral architecture, namely the “horse-head” and “Xie-shan.” However, the deity look and complex designs were abandoned in the modern era.

After the revolution of 1911, China became a republic and its monarchy was abolished. As a result of these changes, the practice of ancestral worship also gradually declined. During the 1950s and 60s, when China implemented a series of political movements to reform tradition and culture, such as the “Campaign to Suppress Counter-revolutionaries” and the “Cultural Revolution,” the custom of ancestral worship and having ancestral tablets was strongly condemned and marginalized. The evolving trends and declining practice of ancestral worship also led to changes in ancestral tablet designs.

2. Significance of ancestral tablets in Chinese culture

It is clear that in the Chinese culture, ancestral tablets serve a very important purpose in worship. First and most importantly, there is a physical home for the ancestors within the family. When we worship our ancestors, the spirit actually resides in the ancestral tablets. Such an act of worship is believed to give life and substance to the spirits. Every person who sets up an ancestral tablet of his own is keeping alive the memory of that person and the spirit within. With such deep meaning and purpose, it has been a very common practice for thousands of years for families to have an ancestral tablet. Such a ritual is passed down from generation to generation. When children marry and leave home, they will set up their own ancestral tablets to represent their own family. So the number of ancestral tablets from a family grows with time and this reflects the tradition and the prosperity of the family. Last but not least, the line of ancestral tablets is a physical connection between past, present, and the future. In the vast timeline of the Chinese culture, when ancestors pass, they become part of the next line of ancestors and their spirits will join the line of the spirits within the family. As such, there is always a continual line of past and present, and the duty to preserve and continue this timeline is regarded as a very important responsibility for every living family member. For example, during the Chinese New Year, one of the typical scenes in the traditional families and the Buddhist temple will be the offering ceremonies for the ancestors. Family members will come together, perform the ceremony, burn the incense, and make offerings at the ancestral tablets. On the other hand, people will go to the temple and conduct similar ceremonies with the abbots and the monks. Such a scene truly reflects the spiritual, moral, and social dimensions of the ancestral tablet worship in the Chinese culture.

2.1 Role of ancestral tablets in ancestor worship

The practice of ancestor worship dates back to early Chinese history. Originating from the belief of Confucius and his teachings, it is only natural for the practice to integrate harmoniously into the day-to-day life of the Chinese people. In fact, ancestor worship is the very foundation of key values and moral guidance set by the ancient philosopher. According to Confucius, an ideal society is a family state—a larger version of the Chinese family in which the patriarch is the emperor of the nation and there is a single unitary power. Confucius taught that people should not only care for the living family members around them but also should always remember the love and the great deeds done by those who had died and was a member of the same family. This is the only way to develop and expand the love and affection to all member of the society and only then, the society would be a peaceful and harmonious place to live in. It is with such teaching and set of beliefs that the practice of ancestor worship is widely accepted and integrated into the lives of the Chinese people wherever they are in the world. Ancestor worship is not just a cultural practice. It serves a much more significant role in preserving the culture and heritage of the Chinese people. By paying homage and respect to their ancestors, the Chinese express their gratitude and remember the source of their family root and also the meaning of kinship and large family. This helps to impart the moral and ethical values associated with the teachings of Confucius to the future generations and cultivates a sense of belonging, love and respect among the members of the society.

2.2 Symbolic meaning and spiritual connection

Unlike the western practice of ancestor worship in tombs and cemeteries, the Chinese way of paying homage to ancestors through the ancestral tablets in the family homes signifies the utmost respect and remembrance of the deceased. The historical roots of the ancestral tablets can be traced back to the legendary stories of the Yellow Emperor and the establishment of the Chinese nation. It is believed in the folklore that the emperor and his descendants introduced the ancestral tablets as an integral part of the ancestor worship rituals. The ancestral tablets were commonly made from woods, such as cypress, rosewood, green sandalwood, and red sandalwood. Woods are generally chosen for their natural bright colors and sturdiness, in hopes of symbolizing the eternal life and bright spirits of the ancestors. The names of the ancestors and their respective positions in the family hierarchy would be carved or inscribed on the ancestral tablets. Over the centuries, the design and styles of the ancestral tablets have evolved with technological advancements and societal changes. From the simple rectangular boards with inscriptions in the ancient times, to the more elaborate and intricate designs with carvings and decorative details nowadays, the ancestral tablets have become a perfect combination of traditional cultural values and modern aesthetic tastes. Most significantly, the introduction of new materials for making ancestral tablets, such as pottery, jade, porcelain, and metals, showcases the adaptability and innovation of the Chinese culture in contemporary society. These materials present a wide range of choices for individuals and families to customize their own ancestral tablets, creating a personal spiritual symbol that reflects their unique family traditions and characteristics. The ancestral tablets provide a deep spiritual connection and bridge between the living and the deceased. In Chinese belief, the souls of the deceased continue to dwell on earth and watch over the family members. When the family members kneel and pray in front of the ancestral tablets, it is thought that the ancestors are able to see and hear the prayers, and in turn, to bless and protect the family’s well-being. This intimate form of communication has been an essential spiritual practice in the everyday lives of the Chinese families, fostering the values of filial piety and family unity across different generations. Modern technology has widened the access and choices of ancestral tablets. Apart from personal consultation with experienced craftsmen or religious professionals, digital ancestral tablets are now available at various online memorial platforms. The digital platforms enable family members to create virtual ancestral tablets and to engage in cyber rituals anytime and anywhere, catering to the needs of a highly mobile and technology-savvy society. However, the emergence of digital alternatives does not diminish the significance of the traditional ancestral tablets in the homes. As a matter of fact, the digital technology has brought about opportunities for the preservation and promotion of the traditional practice of ancestor worship. In light of the increasing urbanization and limited living spaces in the modern city life, some families may choose to keep the physical ancestral tablets in professional columbarium halls and niches. On the special occasions of Tomb Sweeping Day and Ching Ming Festival, families would remove the ancestral tablets from the niches and bring them to the columbarium halls for collective worships and prayers. Such collective activities not only enhance the community spirit and mutual support among the families, but also strengthen the meaningfulness of the ancestor worship rituals.

2.3 Impact on family cohesion and identity

The use of ancestral tablets is deeply integrated in the Chinese culture and it seems to have no exception even in the modern Chinese societies. The respect and filial piety shown in the maintaining of ancestral tablets for the preceding generations seems to have created a lasting cohesion and identity. It is through the recognition of the family’s lineage of male descendants from generation to generation that a high sense of respect and hierarchical order is preserved. Furthermore, ancestral tablets endow the practice of ancestor worship with a sense of ongoing familial identity, providing the succeeding generations with a legitimate link to their forebears. In each and every Chinese household, it is common practice for families to have an allocated space, usually a small but ornately decorated shelf, in the main living area for displaying the ancestral tablets of the paternal line of the family. Every festival in the Chinese lunar calendar when ancestor worship is conducted, the family members will have to gather in front of the erecting tablets, lined up in a descending order of the generations and pay the respect according to this order. The younger generation will have to show their respect to the preceding generations of the family, followed by the deceased parents. I believe the usage of ancestral tablet in the ancestor worship regimen helps to reinforce the role of filial piety and hierarchical order among the family members and in turn, strengthen the intrafamilial cohesion. On the other hand, the prolonging of showing respect to previous generations and knowing that the future generations will continue to do the same for the current generation, it works to ensure a continuous familial identity and bonds. It is interesting to note how the significance of ancestral tablets in forging family bonds can be summarised using Confucius’s teaching which prioritises the relationships and obligations of the family as the foundation of a harmonious society. By upholding and maintaining the rituals, such as ancestor worship, that reflects the traditional values of family, it provides a sense of social order and automatically, the societal cohesion will be enhanced. At least for my family, the topic on the choosing of my future lifetime partner will start with the ‘quality’ of the possible future bearer of the family name instead of my personal preference. This scenario would rarely happen in the context of a modern and fast-paced society today and I strongly believed that this shows the gravity of the unbroken lineage symbolised by the ancestral tablets in determining the family structure and subsequent identity of the individual. The teachings of Confucius and the significance of having an harmonious society achieved through respecting the family values and the hierarchical order is a testimony to the importance rendered to the ancestral tablets in framing the notion of family cohesion and identity in the Chinese societies.

3. Types of ancestral tablets and their designs

Modernized designs and materials have allowed for larger freedom in terms of the aesthetics of tablets and also the patterns and options than are often incorporated into their style. notably over the last century, the discharge and proliferation of sanders, anaesthetics, and glass cutting tools have permitted craftsmen to experiment with new concepts and styles that are a lot of exciting than ancient carvings. Crest, ancestral tablets that use innovative materials like bone, jade, porcelain, or glass became progressively fashionable over recent decades. Such materials supply progressively viable alternatives to wood, and also the vary of colors and are style prospects has been greatly extended.

At traditional Chinese ancestral tablets arrive in two main types. The older and a lot of ancient selection are historically created out of wood. Wood may be a necessary medium for this use due to the strength and resilience, and is additionally thought of as in all probability the foremost dependable and durable material for the aim. These tablets can typically feature ancient Chinese carvings, which can contain ornamental options that accompany specific meanings. For example, a tablet that options a dragon, that is thought as a protector, would usually be used to commemorate a male relative.

3.1 Traditional wooden ancestral tablets

Shantang furniture is typically made of jumu, nanmu or other hardwoods. Usually, traditional wooden ancestral tablets are made of these kinds of hard, expensive woods as well. With its rich, dense wood material and fine texture, jumu is a favourite type of wood used in ancestral tablet production. Culturally, jumu is valued for making high-end antique furniture, archery bows, and musical instruments such as Guqin and Erhu. It was also the primary wood used in the construction of the Imperial Palace in China. Meanwhile, nanmu was mainly used in ancient Chinese architecture and ships due to its durable and water-resistant properties. Shelterwood, a very old and rare variety of nanmu, is highly sought after for making luxury furniture and fine wood crafts. For many families, the selection and crafting of a traditional wooden ancestral tablet are seen as a serious and sacred process. Often, they would engage the service of a professional to conduct a ‘rites and rituals’ session to invoke the spirits of their ancestors to bless the making of a new ancestral tablet. Such sessions typically take place at a reputable and dedicated fengshui and ancestral rites consultancy. The sense of heritage and a close relationship with the past that traditional wooden ancestral tablets embody exemplifies the enduring Chinese values of filial piety and respect for ancestors. While scientific advancement and urbanization continue to shape modern Chinese societies, the practice of venerating family ancestors and upholding traditional cultural values remain deeply rooted and central to the Chinese way of life.

3.2 Modernized materials and styles

In recent years, with the development of technology and the improvement of people’s living standards, the materials, styles, and production methods of ancestral tablets have also been greatly improved. Traditional paper and silk are almost replaced by advanced glass, crystal, metal, wood, and stone. For example, some people use LCD relative tablets instead of paper ones in order to make the ancestral tablets able to display a variety of pictures of the deceased at any time. And the battery in the tablet can be charged by solar energy automatically to provide the tablet’s work. Another example is that the name of the deceased and some blessing words are not colored by handwriting anymore. Instead, advanced laser machines are used to engrave the name and words on a piece of glass in any customized color style because some laser machines have the function of coloring the words at the same time of engraving. In this way, the words will never fade or wear off, and the color of the words will not change over a long period of time. These modern designs not only achieve the basic functions that an ancestral tablet should have but also have additional features like a more customizable appearance, longer service life, and easier maintenance. And the deceased people can be honored in a more decent and comfortable way. With the increasing use of modernized materials, preserving the same traditional features becomes the main artistic charm of wooden and other antique-replica tablets. It takes any people great efforts and costs to complete such a traditional carved wooden piece, and it usually becomes a masterpiece of a family. The most popular choice is mahogany or rosewood because these two types of solid materials can show the magnificent carvings very well, and the character of warm color fits people’s favor perfectly. But it should be noted that the carvers should comply with the strict needs on traditional patterns and ways of how the divine’s name and birth information are exhibited. Also, it usually takes at least 3 months for an average wooden ancestral tablet to be finished as the carver has to put time and effort into each procedure such as sawing, chiseling, grinding, filing, coloring, and waxing. The incredible effort put into creating a unique traditional wooden tablet is a reflection of the bygone era and the profound respect for the deceased.

3.3 Intricate carvings and decorative elements

One of the most important aspects of traditional ancestral tablets is their intricate carvings and decorative elements. These elements are not just for aesthetic purposes, but also serve to convey symbolic meanings and cultural messages in unique and artistic ways. A common decorative element for traditional ancestral tablets is “dragon and phoenix”. This refers to dragon and phoenix carvings, a pair of animal motifs often seen in ancient Chinese art and architecture. The dragon and phoenix are the ultimate couple in the animal world and are traditionally regarded as the embodiment of the Emperor and Empress. In the context of ancestral tablets, putting these motifs onto the tablet can be seen as a wish for the deceased to be blessed with good fortune in the presence of these powerful symbols. Moreover, intricately carved patterns of auspicious clouds are often found surrounding the dragon or phoenix, expressing an exhilarating and uplifting atmosphere with active, dynamic strokes. The carving style plays into the “cloud” semiology, which symbolizes luck and fortune for the descendants of the deceased. Given that most of these art pieces are done through traditional hand-carving methods, the depth and vividness of the art piece fully displays the wish and hope of the still-alive family members. Well-wishing phrases such as “Rest peacefully” are also commonly seen in the carvings of the tablet surface. This has become a practical design convention in the making of ancestral tablets, where these wishes can be carved line by line in squared sections. It is believed that the deceased can be soothed and comforted by seeing the wishes and metaphors that they will come across in the spirit world.

4. Pricing and consultation services for ancestral tablets

Nowadays, there is a myriad of creative and modern design options available for families. It is quite common for tablet designers to employ advanced techniques such as laser engraving to achieve highly intricate patterns, designs, and images on the tablet surfaces. Customers may also opt to customize the tablet with special carvings, for example, the Chinese zodiac or the name of the deceased. Most service providers, including Nirvana Singapore and Fu Gui Shan Zhuang, offer a range of free and chargeable additional services such as custom inscriptions, personalized maintenance services, and afterlife planning consultancy. The provision of these services often helps to facilitate the process of choosing a tablet and strengthens the familial nature of the tablet-choosing experience.

Another important but often overlooked factor in choosing an ancestral tablet is the opportunity for professional consultation. When family members have different preferences over the choice of tablets, professional advice can help to mediate differences and find a tablet that is most suitable for commemorating the departed. In the words of Mr. Samuel Teo, the Business Development Manager at Nirvana Singapore, “consultation services are important in ensuring that the tablet is not just a physical object, but a spiritual connector that bestows harmony, respect, and blessings to the whole family.” I found this viewpoint particularly insightful, as it underscores the differing purposes and meanings of consulting an expert in the selection process. Also, it explains why many families may find the consultation advice to be a rather valuable part of the experience.

From a pricing perspective, the cost of ancestral tablets is influenced by a combination of factors such as the type of tablet material, design complexity, customization required, and additional services. The three main categories of tablet materials are wood, marble, and granite, with wood being the traditional choice for most families. The comparative cost of wooden tablets, marble tablets, and granite tablets is approximately 600 to 1000 SGD, 800 to 1300 SGD, and 1000 to 1500 SGD. It is important to note that more elaborate designs and larger tablets may command higher prices, and families should consult the experts at ancestral tablet providers to understand the cost implication of different design choices.

4.1 Factors influencing the cost of ancestral tablets

The material of the tablet is one of the factors that can significantly change its price. Most traditional ancestral tablets are made of wood, as Chinese culture is based on wood. However, due to the increasing expense of wood, the price for a decent wooden ancestral tablet can be large. On the other hand, marble and metal tablets are rare due to their high price, but in recent years they have been more and more popular because people want to make their deceased relatives special. The size of the ancestral tablet is the second important factor that influences the price. Simply speaking, the bigger the tablet, the more expensive it will be. According to Confucianism, a son should worship his parents every day. Therefore, people most likely will buy a large-sized tablet and put it in their house altar. However, due to the price, many people today may choose a smaller size to save money. Also, the elaboration of the carvings introduces another factor that can affect the cost of the ancestral tablet. Some ancestral tablets may contain pictures of dragons, phoenixes, and other lucky animals, while some may contain lovely flowers or pictures that represent the deceased people’s hobbies. Very often, if a family would like to have a detailed and deep carving, then they have to pay a big amount of money for that.

4.2 Importance of professional consultation in selecting ancestral tablets

Last but not least, it is important to recognize that consultation does not only cover areas related to tangible designs and aesthetics. It is highly effective in allowing family members to share, communicate, and express their personal feelings and respects for the deceased. Based on surveys and interviews conducted with families and individuals who have engaged in consultation sessions, it has been found that the process has substantially strengthened family bonds and unity. The collective effort and active participation observed in the selection process can be emotionally fulfilling and empowering for many. For this reason, many professionals encourage families to initiate the search for ancestral tablets as early as possible after a loved one’s passing. This is a direct reflection of the belief that such shared experiences and love for the deceased could be transformed into a positive and profound force that sustains family harmony and happiness.

In most cases, the name, date of birth, and date of death would have to be carved on the tablet in Chinese characters. However, certain other personal details such as the zodiac sign and birthplace may be included depending on individual preferences and religious or regional practices. Also, professionals are able to identify and explain the meanings and symbolic significances associated with different aspects of the tablet. This is particularly beneficial as it would enable the family members to appreciate and understand the deeper meanings embedded in the tablet, allowing for stronger emotional and spiritual connections.

Given that ancestral tablets are intended to serve as permanent reminders of the ancestors and are accorded deep significance and respect at home altars, a well-informed and comprehensive search and selection process becomes even more important. Also, professionals are in the best position to propose the ideal material, shape, size, designs, and additional features that should be included in the ancestral tablet. For example, if the deceased is an elder who has lived a long and fulfilling life, it is customary that a larger and more substantial tablet should be selected.

Professional consultation plays a key role in ensuring that the selected ancestral tablet is the best representation and embodiment of the spirit of the deceased. Unlike consulting with untrained personnel, seeking advice from professionals minimizes the chances of encountering errors and flaws in the final product. The unique insights and perspectives offered by professionals can help to inspire and guide the selection process, providing the family members with a valuable and enriching experience.

4.3 Customization options and additional services offered

When you have decided on the type and size of the ancestral tablet, as well as the material to be used, you can go further to select the inscription. Ancestral tablets must contain the posthumous name or the name of the ancestor, preceded by the word “祖” which means “ancestor” or “grandfather from a higher generation”, followed by his or her real name, deceased year and celebration for the annual ceremony for the ancestor. The tablets can be kept simple and plain, or carved with family emblem or an auspicious Chinese word such as “吉祥” which means good fortune. For families that require elaborate traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting, professional artists will be commissioned to work on the ancestral tablets. In addition to the inscription, some people may go on to select the colour of the satin for wrapping the tablet, and the colour of the tassel. Nowadays, there are even more choices, e.g. the motifs and patterns for the cover which is commonly made with transparent plastic, the type of wood used, the shape and decoration of the edges and corners of the tablets, as well as the material and colour of the box used for storing the tablets. Also there are more personalization services provided by the funeral companies. For example, according to the official website of Tai Kwong Yuen, a funeral business in Hong Kong, customers can choose not only the material of the box for storing the tablets and the emblem affixed to the lid, but also “purchase most kinds of memorial stationery and wooden articles online from our shop, and these new articles can be engraved with the name of the ancestor”.

5. Examples of ancestral tablets available at Nirvana Singapore and Fu Gui Shan Zhuang

In addition to the perspex frame design, the tablet is also packaged with built-in LED lights that have the option to change between seven different colors. This unique feature is aimed at attracting and engaging potential customers, as it demonstrates the innovative integration of technology with traditional practices. Overall, these examples serve to illustrate the creativity and diversity in ancestral tablet designs, and they showcase how cultural traditions can be adapted and preserved in today’s digital age.

On the other hand, Fu Gui Shan Zhuang takes a more innovative approach in the design of their ancestral tablets by incorporating modern aesthetics. For instance, the Double Happiness tablet features a contemporary perspex frame, which gives the overall design a sleek and glossy finish. This tablet is part of FuGui Shan Zhuang’s Geomancy Collection, which features a range of modern and chic designs that are tailored for young and urban families. The Double Happiness tablet is available in ten different colors, and it is designed to symbolize love, harmony, and symmetry in modern family living. This tablet is particularly popular among the younger generation of customers who seek a more trendy and personalized option to commemorate their ancestors.

At Nirvana Singapore, they offer an exquisite collection of ancestral tablets, each characterized by its own unique and intricate design. For example, the Royal Eminent tablet is known for its elegant simplicity and the use of high-quality materials such as rosewood and bronze. This tablet features a vertical rectangular base that is adorned with intricate carvings and patterns. At the top of the tablet, there is a golden nameplate. Additionally, the middle of the tablet is embossed with ornate carvings of traditional Chinese symbols such as dragons and phoenixes. The Royal Eminent tablet is available in three different sizes, and it comes with a fixed set of inscription options. However, customers have the flexibility to personalize the content and layout of the inscriptions based on their preferences.

5.1 Nirvana Singapore’s collection of ancestral tablets

To cater to the varied preferences and needs of modern consumers, many memorial parks like Nirvana Singapore offer a wide variety of ancestral tablets and related services. These services are open to everyone regardless of their religion, and professional guidance and packages can be sought based on an individual’s customs and practices. Nirvana Singapore offers one of the widest ranges of memorial and bereavement services in the region, including more than 40 beautifully crafted ancestral tablets. These range from traditionally designed tablets made of premium Burmese teak wood to modern designs in glass and metal. Each of these tablets is named after different types of flowers and represent the vision of being able to reunite families and loved ones within a garden of flowers that do not wither and wilt under the passage of time. Such modern designs cater to those who are more selective and might opt for a more minimalistic or progressive form of memorializing their departed family members. Certainly, the wide range and detailed designs of these tablets offered at Nirvana Singapore reflects the increasing trend towards modernity and individualism in Singaporean memorial practices. On the other hand, as compared to traditionally designed tablets, more intricate and detailed hand engravings that symbolize prosperity, peace and eternity for the family are featured in these designs. Hence, this caters to relatives and descendants who wish to seek a more comprehensive and visually explicit form of blessing from the ancestors. More importantly, such visual expressions effectively intertwine the role of ancestral tablets in bringing families and descendants together in prayers and blessings. This is significant from the perspective of anthropology and sociology, where the physical design of an object demonstrates its capability to mediate and renew social ties and relations among human beings. Also, the wide range of tablets and designs provided under the professional services at Nirvana Singapore allows clients to be carefully advised by qualified bereavement consultants in customising their own packages.

5.2 Fu Gui Shan Zhuang’s unique ancestral tablet designs

Fu Gui Shan Zhuang’s range of materials and personalized options for designs is something that the company especially prides itself on. Different series of ancestral tablets combine materials such as rosewood, jade, glass and metalwork, giving consumers a variety of different options for design and price. Additionally, Fu Gui Shan Zhuang engages in a tradition known as ‘mineral eternity’ by incorporating precious stones or minerals into certain designs, which is believed to ensure an everlasting light for the deceased in the spiritual realm. There is certainly much more scope for personalized varieties of design with Fu Gui Shan Zhuang compared to the other companies, and this is reflected in both the range and the relative cost of the various different designs available.

How the deceased person’s name is depicted also varies depending on the specific tablet. For instance, the ‘Forever in My Heart’ series features the calligraphy of the deceased’s name on an ornamental scroll, housed within a glass-fronted case. This serves to showcase the name, making it more of a central focus in the design. By contrast, the ‘Peace & Blessings’ series uses an intricate filigree design on the metalwork that surrounds the name, meaning that the name is less obvious on first glance and the overall design is given more prominence. Another specialist company through which ancestral tablets are available is Fu Gui Shan Zhuang. The designs by Fu Gui Shan Zhuang are unique in that they tend to blend the traditional and the modern, creating ancestral tablets that have a certain timeless quality. The ‘Butterfly Lovers’ series, for example, features the use of classic rosewood and elegant, intricate carvings on the exterior casing. However, the calligraphy and imagery of the ‘Butterfly Lovers’ series are produced using modern laser etching techniques, which allow for a higher level of detail and a more delicate finish. The result is a visually stunning work of art that still retains the integrity and respect of a traditional Chinese ancestral tablet. This balance between modern and traditional techniques is something that characterizes Fu Gui Shan Zhu