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.