Chinese Altars and Spiritual Practice in the Informal Setting

     Altars are a common structure seen in many different kinds of places of worship across many different kinds of cultures. With the image of the altar comes along a preconceived notion about what it is, what purpose it serves, where it should be, and how it should look. Although altars are important aspects of ritual traditions in large places of worship, there is another aspect to the use of altars that literally is closer to home. It is becoming increasingly common to see people who are devoted to their spiritual practices to bring the symbol and ideas of the altar into places that would not normally be considered to be places of worship. In Chinese culture, it would not be unusual to see some kind of an altar or shrine in the back corner of some restaurant or other small business. This research paper seeks to dissect and analyze and question why people bring the idea of an altar outside of a place of worship. What is it about Chinese culture that makes this kind of phenomenon seem natural and normal? What can an altar tell us about that person, family or business? What are the many purposes for constructing an altar in a more personal space? By analyzing stories about the lifestyles and altars of humble families and businessmen, both from within and outside of China, the real depth of the meaning and importance an altar can have on an individual’s spiritual life will become all the more clear.

     In order to cover all aspects of this topic, it is imperative that the issue be considered from even tangentially related topics. Obvious sources include articles giving personal accounts of seeing altars in a more casual setting, and some sources that speak to the normal social life of Chinese society. In order to see how the religion relates to social life, things such as literature are equally as important to consider than the spiritual practices themselves. One such sources analyzes in detail the library of a Chinatown shop owner, giving many insights into who they were and clues as to how spiritual practices applied to his business. In addition to the person, it is also important to look into religion and spirituality as it is traditionally practiced, particularly paying attention to the differences between traditional altars compared to ones that would be seen in a home or business. These sources are the most common, as there are many looks into both Daoist and Buddhist temples. For example, street altars would look significantly less ornate than that of a temple, yet still stand for the same thing, so understanding how the symbols are still depicted is a major aspect of bringing these practices to a personal level. Finally, we can consider how these practices involving personalized religion and the use of colloquial altars compares to similar practices from other cultures, both western and eastern. The concept of a personalized spirituality is a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly more common in the west, and also one that is seen across other eastern cultures. In particular, Japan, whose culture is similar to China, have records of these same ideas and practices, such as the statues of the golden cat commonly seen in Japanese restaurants. Even though it is not expressed in the form of an altar, the phenomenon occurs often enough to consider how it manifests in places that do not follow Chinese tradition.

     This consideration begs to be looked at through the lenses of other CORE classes at the 300 level, as exploration of cultural traditions heavily involves a deep look into spiritual practices. One class in particular that has many parallels that I happen to also be taking is Shaking the Spirit with Dr. Stephen Wehmeyer, as topics as specific as altars coming up in that class as a part of Haitian vodou. In addition to this, much of the spiritual practices in vodou are very much personal, more so than most kinds of practices people would expect to see. Although the form being analyzed initially is an altar, this research paper speaks to the general idea of personalizing a religion, or what religion means to the individual. Therefore, not only does this relate to the studying of cultural practices in 300 level courses, but also can be looked at through the perspective of psychology as discussed in Concepts of the Self, as well as through the history and changing of western religion over time as seen in many sections of Sacred and Secular. Overall, the study of this phenomenon serves to be an insight into both how people react as a community as well as how people act as individuals with regards to spirituality.

4 thoughts on “Chinese Altars and Spiritual Practice in the Informal Setting

  1. Christopher Bendel

    It is very interesting to learn that Chinese altars can differ depending on if it is a traditional altar or an altar set up in one’s business or home. I am also taking Shaking the Spirit and was compelled to reply to your post because I was interested to see how the altars differ between cultures and religions. I’m sure, as you probably know already, that the personalizing of the altars and form of worship used in the Chinese cultures are one of the most important things in that religion. I have learned that personalizing your relationship to the god or spirit you pray to makes the belief much more real for the person practicing. It is definitely interesting to me how certain symbols, such as the golden cat, became a regular thing that stemmed from the alter, where we can also see similar things in Haitian Voodoo culture in which colors such as red and blue become such a part of daily life for the people who live in those communities.

    Reply
  2. Christopher Bendel

    It is very interesting to learn that Chinese altars can differ depending on if it is a traditional altar or an altar set up in one’s business or home. I am also taking Shaking the Spirit and was compelled to reply to your post because I was interested to see how the altars differ between cultures and religions. I’m sure, as you probably know already, that the personalizing of the altars and form of worship used in the Chinese cultures are one of the most important things in that religion. I have learned that personalizing your relationship to the god or spirit you pray to makes the belief much more real for the person practicing. It is definitely interesting to me how certain symbols, such as the golden cat, became a regular thing that stemmed from the alter, where we can also see similar things in Haitian Voodoo culture in which colors such as red and blue become such a part of daily life for the people who live in those communities.

    Reply
  3. Allison Dame

    It’s very interesting to learn how important alters are in Chinese culture. This past semester, I learned about Santeria in Shaking the Spirit. In this class, I learned about how important alters are to this Cuban religion, similarly to how important alters are in Chinese culture. For example, you mentioned that it was surprising that they incorporated their alters into their daily lives in an “informal setting.” In Santeria, this is also the case. An alter, at least to me and how I understand it, is a devotion to someone or something. It’s a way to speak to and honor a person or being. With this being said, we learned about how, in Santeria, the devotees usually wear necklaces or anklets or the colors associated with their particular Orisha. While these are not the stereotypical alter, they still serve as a devotion to the Orisha in ordinary life. Also, traditional Santeria alters are a mix between African and Western traditions. The Orishas are honored by the construction of different alters consisting of precisely placed objects ranging from food, to fabrics, to shrines and statues, etc. Whats particularly funny is that these alters are almost always set up in devotees homes, whereas a traditional alter in Chinese culture is in more of a formal setting. While devotees of Santeria do construct traditional alters as physical places of worship they also incorporate elements of the alter into their lives. They sometimes are forbid to eat certain things or only eat other things. They sometimes can only wear certain colors and have to stick away from others. These similarities of alters being such a key component in both Chinese and Santeria religions were fascinating. It’s compelling to learn that a huge part of the Chinese culture is the personalization of the alters. This couldn’t be any more similar to the way devotees feel about Santeria alters. They specifically target their Orisha and make the alters their own. Not a single Santeria alter is the same, and I would assume the same would be true for Chinese cultures as well.

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  4. Anthony Taylor

    This is a great and informational read about how altars are used in Chinese culture. Vodou altars are used in a very similar way to the way that Chinese altars are used. Both of these kinds of altars are used to help an individual or a group of individuals feel closer to something they believe to b e grander then they are. Altars also help an individual to make offerings and ask for help in life from these grander forces.

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