“Is ancestral tablet necessary?” It is a good question we often hear from our clients, especially the younger ones. In this article, we will explore the origin of the ancestral tablet and understand why the ancestral tablet is highly essential in Chinese customs today. We hope by reading this article; the younger generation can significantly appreciate these customs and continue practising them for many generations.
The Origin of Ancestral Tablet
You may wonder when the custom of praying to our ancestors via the ancestral tablet (pedestal) started. From our research, the practice of using the ancestral tablet as an item of worship began as early as the Eastern Han dynasty period. (25–220 A.D.)
A young man named Ding Han was raised by his mother since his father died when he was very young. However, Ding Han (like what some teenagers do to their parents) took her mother for granted. He would occasionally scold her for nothing. One day as he was working at the field, he saw a young lamb ‘kneeling’ on the ground while sucking the milk from the mother goat. Ding Han asked the shepherd why did the young lambs kneel? The shepherd said that “even animals understand the meaning of filial piety.”
Upon hearing the shepherd’s words, Ding Han felt ashamed for being rude to his mother. He wanted to make up for his ignorance and apologise for his mistakes. Hence, he ran off to find his mother. His mother was by a lake. Upon seeing his son running towards her, she thought he was angry with her again. So, she ran off. However, she fell into the lake and was nowhere to be found.
Ding Han tried very hard to find his mother but to no avail. One day, a wood plank was seen floating on the lake. Ding Han took that piece of wood, carved his mother’s name, placed it in his home, and worshipped it earnestly every day. Villagers started to follow him by installing a wood tablet in their homes, carving their ancestors’ names, and then praying to it.
More and more people in Ding Han’s community, province, and the country started to follow the practice. Some innovated by placing incense burners, food offerings, and paper offerings around the ancestor tablets. The riches created an altar shrine in one part of their home complex to house their ancestral tablets. The nobles, officials, and famous people also began installing their ancestral tablets in temples where the monks would pray daily to bless the ancestors on their behalf.
Today, some Chinese around the world are still adopting the practice of worshipping their ancestors and dearly departed via ancestral tablets.
3 Key Reasons Why Ancestral Tablet is Necessary
#1 It is a form of Filial Piety
There is always a reason why ancestral tablet worshipping has been practised for centuries. And that reason is filial piety. Worshipping our ancestors is a form of respect for those before us – our deceased family members and ancestors. It helps young people understand the importance of paying one’s gratitude. As the Chinese saying (饮水思源 yin shui si yuan), means when we drink a glass of water, we need to know where its source is. Likewise, our ancestors worked very hard to ensure that their children, grandchildren, and future generations could have better lives.
#2 Encourage our Children to Understand our Roots
Worshipping ancestral tablets can also help families, especially those with young children, learn more about their roots. It is a custom for us not to forget our ancestors but always to remember them. We are born in this world today because of them. Hence, we are all connected.
During special occasions such as death anniversaries of the ancestors, or Qing Ming festivals, it will be an appropriate time to teach our children or grandchildren about worshipping our ancestors via the ancestral tablets. Tell them wonderful stories or memories of your ancestors; let them connect with them even though they might not see each other in real life.
#3 Protect the Family and Grant Wishes
A harmonious family is a family where members protect one another in a positive and cohesive environment. It is believed that the spirits of our ancestors reside in the ancestral tablets. Hence, when a person prays sincerely to the ancestral pedestal, they are actually asking for protection and granting of wishes from the ancestors.
Though one may feel uncomfortable or think it is superstitious to ‘ask the ancestors for help,’ it is okay to do so. It is because when we pray to our ancestors, we are actually communicating with ourselves. We are also actually sharing our problems and goals in life. So, instead of bottling up the issues and worries in our hearts, why not share them while we pray to our ancestors? In this way, for any hard feelings or issues, we can let them go. And any resolutions, goals, or dreams we want to achieve, we will renew our determination to fulfill them when we pray to our ancestors.
Whether you believe it or not, sometimes the protection from our ancestors may come in the form of luck or good circumstances. Why can two people of the same age, qualification, or occupation have such vast differences in luck and achievements? That is something that no one can explain.
Hence, whether scientifically or superstitiously, praying to our ancestors via ancestral tablets will only mean one thing – positivity, fortune, and good luck in our lives.
The famous American poet Robert Bly once said, “The ancestors are very much invested in the children because the children are the ones who are going to continue the world that the ancestors made.” The customs of ancestral tablet worshipping remind us always to remember the ancestors that made us happen (born) into this world, teaching us the values of becoming who we want to be in our lives and how we can change the world for us, our children, and their children.