Home » Ancestral Tablets: A Guide to Prices and Pedestals

Ancestral Tablets: A Guide to Prices and Pedestals

by Victor

1. Introduction

It is always a shock when we see some of our friends or relatives break a tradition by leaving out an important note in their culture. With the fast moving pace of technology and the latest gadgets being made, we sometimes forget our traditions and customs. This is the same for a number of families who have forgotten to continue the practice of maintaining and enshrining their family’s history. This tradition can be lost simply by not having the right resources or some family members opting not to remember their deceased relatives. The practice of ancestral tablets can prevent such loss of tradition and it is a very strong reminder for those of all ages. It is believed that to have and remember the loving memories of those who have passed away is like sharing this love with them all over again. This teaching can educate the younger generation on the family’s history, making it easier for them to understand and remember their roots. Finally, it is a great symbol of repentance to those who have done wrong to their elders. It shows that one has not forgotten their teachings, is apologetic of their wrong doings and wishes to repay for them by doing good in the future.

Importance of ancestral tablets in family traditions

The practice of crafting ancestral tablets began during the Warring States Period in China (4th and 3rd centuries BC). It was created to tell the descendants and to hold the memory of a particular Zhang (Clan) Forefathers and Ancestors. The purpose for crafting the ancestral tablet is to have a common place for each family member to go to, to pay respect to their deceased loved ones, while remembering their values and teachings. It is believed that by retaining a practice to return to the initial intentions of filial piety we will have a concrete idea of how to maintain a stronger family bond in society. Ancestral tablet is also used as a way of educating the younger generation of their roots and teaching them about the family’s history. Ancestral tablet ranges from variety in price, consists of Gangshi (Pedestal), Xiaoshi (Small Tablet), Dasheng (Big Tablet) and Dafengsheng (Large and Prosperous Tablet).

Ancestral Tablets: A brief overview

1.1 Ancestral Tablets: A Brief Overview

It is widely believed in Chinese culture that the souls of one’s ancestors have a direct impact on the fortunes of the living. When a family prospers, it is said that the family is in a “state of yang,” and conversely, if a family begins to encounter a lot of misfortune, it is believed that the family is in a “state of yin.” When a family is in a “state of yin,” it is often attributed to the displeasure of the family ancestors’ spirits, and to atone for this, it is necessary to perform rituals asking for forgiveness from the family’s forebears. This suggests that because the fortune of a family relies on the consent of its ancestors, whose spirits are said to protect the living, it is of utmost importance to maintain their well-being.

Ancestral tablets are stone tablets placed on both sides of the graves of the deceased and are considered among the most important symbols of filial piety in Chinese culture. The practice of honoring one’s ancestors is considered of extreme importance in Chinese culture, as the family unit is considered the foundation of a successful society. Children are considered to continue the work of their ancestors and, in return, are owed the duty of providing them a good life.

1.2 Importance of Ancestral Tablets in Family Traditions

It is important that the practice of tablet worship is understood as it is an ancient Chinese tradition that is still practiced today. Tablet worship involves the recognition and veneration of a family’s ancestors. In order to properly venerate an ancestor, a family must acquire or make a wooden tablet (or a spirit tablet) bearing the ancestor’s name. This tablet is placed on an ancestral altar and each day the family must present food, incense or oil to the ancestor while saying prayers. The prayers invoke the ancestor’s spirit to come and partake in the nourishment and to give his or her descendants good fortune and protection. This practice is repeated throughout the year and the food and incense are presented during festivals commemorating the dead. Tablet worship traditions vary depending on the locations in China and the social status of the family. Tablet worship traditions from those belonging to royal bloodlines can be quite intricate and expensive. These traditions often involve decrees from temples to ensure proper veneration, word carvings from professional craftsmen and offering of only the most expensive and rare forms of sustenance. Tablet worship is still practiced by many who hold their ancestors in high regard. This level of commitment ensures that the customs of centuries past will not disappear from modern day Chinese culture.

Ancestral tablets are significant artifacts in Chinese family traditions. With a history of over 3,000 years, ancestral tablets aid in family lineages and provide kinship knowledge and understanding. Tablet worship is an ancient Chinese tradition that involves the recognition and veneration of a family’s ancestors and the significance of providing protection to the lineage. Tablet worship is still practiced in Chinese culture today, especially by older first generation immigrants.

2. Factors Affecting Ancestral Tablet Prices

Tablets made of jade, of course found only in the Shang period, are more valuable than almost any tomb painting, and a set of cast-bronze bells from a Warring States cemetery is prized above all other Zhou ritual bronzes. The importance of craftsmanship, usually indicated by the preservation of fine detail, can be illustrated by the fact that the market is flooded with modern forgeries of pre-Han pottery figurines, but that genuine ones are still sought after. Even when a pre-Han object is not especially rare, such as a ceramic in the style of the revered Eastern Zhou master potter Hsu Xuan, items of particularly good quality will always be more valuable than similar pieces. But a fine work by a major master is something to show excessive wealth, but can make an item of negligible historical interest highly priced and collectible. An example of this is the value and popularity of Ming dynasty furniture. Size and design complexity are self-explanatory factors. A small intricate jade plaque from the Warring States period may be more valuable than an opulent later Han jade bi disc. Assessing the historical significance and provenance of an item can be the most difficult.

Material and craftsmanship.

2.1 Material and Craftsmanship

Tablets made from stone have been known to last through the ages, with some extant stone tablets dating over 2000 years old. Stone is perhaps the most durable material that may be used to create a tablet. It does not necessarily follow that any and all stone tablets are of fine craftsmanship and great monetary value. Where the stone has come from and the ease with which it was worked into a tablet are important considerations. Stone types may be local or imported, and the location of the quarry and the type of stone may have been of importance to the person who the tablet is memorializing. Depending on the nature of the stone and the skill of the craftsman, the tablet may look fresh and new or could look very weathered and ancient.

Once material has been collected and prepared with appropriate rituals, the construction of the tablet begins. Materials for tablet construction are varied, and it is not uncommon for several tablets to be commissioned at the same time, thus several tablets in the same family are made from materials intended to be similar. Usually, the harder and more durable the material used is, the longer the tablet is expected to last. The better the craftsmanship, the more likely the tablet is to last long. Based on this, it is generally true that well-crafted tablets tend to be made from durable materials. Thus, material and craftsmanship can sometimes be difficult to separate when appraising a tablet.

2.2 Size and Design Complexity

Size and design complexity are also key factors for determining ancestral tablet price. Many of the higher-end tablets are made with two or more separate stones – one for the tablet itself, and others for accompanying stone-carved designs and pedestals. In general, larger tablets will cost more than smaller ones, and the more stone that is required for the construction of the tablet, the higher the cost. Designs carved in relief rather than engraved are considered to be more complex and difficult to produce. Intricate designs with many finely detailed features will also increase the complexity of engraving, and thus the cost of a tablet. A single carving can range in price from under $1,000 to more than $10,000. Tablets with stone-carved designs do not necessarily need accompanying designs of similar quality and price. The cost of such artwork can vary from $400 to $1500 per square foot, depending on the complexity of the carving and the reputation of the carver. A high-quality design may cost more than the equivalent area of lower quality design work, but size is a major factor and its cost per square foot will tend to be lower. Pedestal prices vary greatly depending on the quality of work and the type of stone used, but a general estimate may be obtained by calculating the cost of a similar sized table in the same type of stone. Therefore, if a family is concerned with cost of a tablet/pedestal set, they may choose to simplify the design of the tablet and/or use a lower priced stone for the pedestal.

2.3 Historical Significance and Provenance

Very few “historical” Chinese artifacts can claim to have a provenance stretching back more than a couple of centuries. Provenance is very important to Western collectors, but in general, few Chinese are prepared to pay a premium for a piece of ancestor worship ephemera. The exception is when the tablets illustrate aspects of a family or clan’s history that is particularly illustrious or infamous. In this case, you are no longer dealing with the tablets as religious objects, but as a source of historical data. It cannot be overstressed that China is a nation with a harsh enthusiasm for recycling. All metal, stone, and wood have an intrinsic value, making graveyards a favorite venue for impoverished peasants in search of recyclable goods. If materials are taken out of their original context and sold, especially for a cause as nebulous as a simple increase in wealth, the consequences for historical research can be disastrous. In this regard, the purchase and retention of tablets can be seen as a noble act of salvage for villagers who otherwise may not appreciate their historical value. In a region where historical data is on occasion being discovered and translated in a race against time before it is forever lost or destroyed, these tablets might have a value disproportionate to their cost. This is, however, a speculative market and as intimated above the true value of these tablets is often not known even to those selling them.

3. Types of Pedestals for Ancestral Tablets

Modern metal or acrylic pedestals tend to look extremely similar and are usually of a very simplistic design. Price can range from $20 to $250, usually depending on the quality and depth of the metal work. They are ideal for those who are displaying tablets in a fixed location and are looking for something that has the characteristics of being durable and easy to clean. Though they may lack the character and history of a more traditional pedestal, they act as a decent “one-size fits all” stand for those unsure of which pedestal type to use for their tablet. Custom-made metal or acrylic pedestals are also an option and can often cost a small fortune.

Wooden pedestals are traditional and, depending on the design, can be the most ornate of all three types. Usually proportionate to the size of the tablet itself and sometimes embossed with intricate carvings that either denote the family’s clan or emulate a favorite pastime of the departed. They are well suited for those who may have tablets stored away for periods of time and only brought out on special occasions such as the annual grave-sweeping festival. Tablets can be removed and placed back into storage with relative ease. More common and simplistic wooden pedestals are easily found at local Chinese furniture stores and can cost from approximately $50 to $200, although they often fail to provide the tablet with any real distinction from the average photo frame.

3.1 Traditional Wooden Pedestals

Traditional wooden pedestals are preferred by most of our clients and they are also the most suited type of pedestal for your ancestral tablet. As compared to tables or shelves where the tablets in question are sometimes placed on, using a pedestal, the tablet is given prominence and its significance is elevated. Traditional wooden pedestals come in various designs and heights and usually can be bought at furniture shops. Customers can choose from a range of pedestals depending on the size of their tablet as well as their personal preference. If the customer desires a specific type of pedestal that he is unable to find in shops, he can also approach carpenters or furniture shops to have the pedestal custom made according to his wishes. This is a less costly alternative compared to customizing an entire tablet set and is a good compromise for those who seek a unique display for their family tablet. Given that the wooden pedestal is sturdy and durable, it can even be used to hold successive generations of tablets and serve as a permanent fixture for the family altar. While wooden pedestals generally cost between $60 to $200, the wide range of prices can accommodate customers with different budgets. Overall, it is an elegant and versatile choice suitable for any family tablet.

3.2 Modern Metal and Acrylic Pedestals

There are basically two types of modern pedestal sets used for precise but and more demanding households looking for a modern setting. We have the metal and acrylic pedestal sets which are a sure fit with the changing trend. The metal pedestal set has 3 sizes to choose from. Metal pedestal sets are all fixed in height, any changes will have to be specially custom made which would also mean additional cost. There are 3 available sizes for the acrylic pedestal sets. Sizes are fixed, however they can be stacked to attain the desired height although this may prove to be somewhat unstable. All pedestal sets are sold in pair inclusive with top and bottom. Metal pedestal sets are built solidly and will never break when mishandled. Assembling the metal pedestal sets is quite plain and simple. Insert the screws to the legs and it is completed. The acrylic pedestal has to be one of the most intriguing products in recent times. Its translucent design makes it hard to differentiate it from glass; and the general impression is that it looks fragile. You can rest assured it is not as delicate as it looks and is quite durable in reality. However special care should be taken if it is to be moved around often. Assembly wise it is just a matter of stacking the acrylic plates as mentioned above. This can be done and redone time and time again to suit the desired display at that point in time.

3.3 Customized Pedestals for Personalized Display

The most important thing to consider when deciding on customizing a pedestal is the durability and longevity of the materials used. Some may look nice but not resist the elements very well, requiring replacements after some years. If you are going to take the time to select or create a pedestal for the spirit of a loved one, it is worth understanding the cost of a better material in the long run. A company in Hawaii called Otani Marble is an example of a company that utilizes quality materials to create beautiful, customized marble pedestals and stones at an affordable cost. While it is often hard to find a company that will do it for a reasonable cost, it will be well appreciated once finished. Whether you are looking for a pedestal that is simple yet uniquely shaped, or if you have a complex design already envisioned, those with the creativity and the funds will not be disappointed with a custom pedestal.

Customized pedestals are an option for the customer who has a specific vision of how he would like to display his ancestral tablet. These are higher end choices that you won’t find at every monument store or online. Whether you want to display your tablet in a specific pose, with specific colors or with detailed engravings, the possibilities are endless with a customized pedestal. Traditional Japanese monument stores will be most likely to offer this type of service, but it is possible to find companies overseas that are willing to ship a custom-made pedestal for your specific tablet.

4. Care and Maintenance of Ancestral Tablets

In the past, ancestral tablets were often presented on pedestals or shelves attached to the wall, in places that participants could easily see and worship. Today’s environment in a Chinese Malaysian home is considerably different than before, hence due to the vastness of the Chinese community, people’s thoughts on the types of presentation and display that are deemed to be appropriate may differ. Common displays today range from table top presentation to placement on altar shelves and some more elaborate displays. Considerations on maintenance and prevention differ with each method of display and will be discussed further in this article.

Throughout several chapters in the book, there are many references to the degradation of ancestral tablets. This valuable source from Mr. Kong goes into great detail about the importance of proper maintenance and preservation of ancestral tablets. Kong stresses that care and consideration should be taken in handling ancestral tablets to prevent accidental damage, and that conservation methods implemented should be aimed at avoiding the need for restoration, which could result in an irreversible loss of historical, cultural, and artistic values.

4.1 Cleaning and Dusting

The most common method of cleaning ancestral tablets is to dust them manually. The method is not as simple as it sounds, and when some factors are overlooked, tablets do get damaged. A popular albeit somewhat risky method is to use a paintbrush and dust the tablets. While this method is fast and somewhat effective, rubbing the brush against the tablet scratches the surface and over time, paintbrushes tend to harden and so the bristles often chip and fall off. This method is not recommended. While dusting occasionally with a feather duster is okay, this method simply moves the dust from the tablet into the air and onto the floor. The safest and most effective method of dusting is to use a cotton cloth (chux cloth or an old shirt) and wipe the surface softly in a circular motion. The circular motion prevents the edges from damage, and the wiping motion eliminates the dust from the cloth each time. This means that when the cloth is dirty, it can simply be washed. There are no risks involved in this method, and it does provide the best result. Another method of cleaning that can be effective yet risky is to use a damp cloth. The idea is that the water gathers the dust and removes it from the stone. However, disposable wipes often contain chemical residues, and the same applies to sponges. The residues and chemicals do affect the stone’s surface, and even with a damp cotton cloth, the dust simply turns to mud and then spreads around the tablet. This method is not recommended and is not to be confused with a technique used to restore stone (to be elaborated in 4.3.1).

4.2 Proper Placement and Lighting

Once the family’s entire collection of tablets has been thoroughly cleaned, they may be placed in a meeting room or on an altar. This will allow all family members to pay respect to their ancestors during important ceremonies or festival days. Tablets not in use are best stored in a chest, along with the spirit tablet, to keep them clean and prevent damage. When deciding the best location for a family altar, always take into consideration the type of tablets and the wishes of the ancestors. Placing an altar in a likely-to-flood basement is not suitable, and if the family is not of Chinese descent, an outdoor altar may be more appropriate. Care should be taken not to place an altar too near a restroom, as this is viewed as disrespectful in many cultures. If a family has mistakenly placed an altar in a location that has become unsuitable, do not simply move the tablets. Instead, a small ritual should be held and the spirits of the ancestors asked to relocate to the new altar before the tablets are moved. A simple ritual may involve presenting offerings and gently explaining the situation to the spirits. A family may take divine direction by using moon blocks as a tool for communication between this world and the spirit world. An altar and tablets may be placed in the locations corresponding to the better/worse luck and the blocks may be cast in order to determine the most suitable placement for the tablets.

4.3 Preservation and Restoration Techniques

The primary consideration in preserving and restoring any artwork comes down to a logical question of value. What value does the artwork hold and to whom? Upon deciding that the artwork does indeed hold considerable enough historical or fiscal value to be worth preserving and/or restoring, one must take into account the future intent for the artwork. For example, if the intent in preservation is to ensure long-term survival and minimize deterioration, much effort and money will need to be spent finding the best method of preservation and/or a conservator. If the intent for the preservation is temporary, perhaps to simply stabilize the artwork while it is being sold or transported, this suggests a more basic form of preservation. Any work to be done on the art must be documented and any materials applied must be reversible in the event that they cause damage to the artwork. This will ensure that any restoration on the art can be done in the future. A future intent in restoration suggests preservation until the time when restoration will be done. It is important to realize that most materials and methods of preservation are, in fact, designed to make a future restoration easier.

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