Author: Yixuan Wu
Ancestral halls (in Chinese it is either 宗祠 or 祠堂), are monuments for the Han Chinese to worship ancestors.
It is also both the symbol of the divine ancestral spirits and the amount of power that a family has, whether economic or political. The concept of family ancestral halls was introduced and promoted by Zhu Xi, a famous philosopher during the Song Dynasty. This would also mean that before the Song Dynasty, ancestral halls never existed and there were only ancestral temples. Ancestral temples are built for the same purpose as ancestral halls, but are more luxurious and grander for they are exclusively built for the emperors of a dynasty (“What are Ancestral Halls?”).
Figure 1: Ancestral temple of the Qing Emperors
In Southern Fujian, you might see dazzling old-fashioned western-style houses flecking the countryside. These are most likely the ancestral halls of the wealthy families in the village. These halls in Southern Fujian all have three main components: 大门，享堂和寝室, or the gate, the hall, and the “bedroom”. The gate is considered the "facade" of the ancestral hall. It is mostly made of red and white stones, and the walls are made of beautiful tile patterns. The gate, along with the walls that enclose the entire structure, form a courtyard with the hall that sits within the boundaries. The hall is a place for family 祭祀, or sacrifices (the “sacrifices” in this context, are the offerings of the heirs of a family to the ancestors, whether it's through placing food in front of the spiritual tablets or burning paper money), and gatherings. In the hall, there will usually be a hexagonal pillar with cross-sections painted with vivid and bright colors, although in Quanzhou, they are mostly all painted in red and black. Families that give birth to a boy will usually set a lantern at the bottom of that specific pillar, and on the lampshade, the word 添丁 (added boy) is written. This is to inform the ancestors about the addition of a male to the family, which at that time, due to the patriarchal society, was seen as good luck for the future of the family. Big ancestral halls also have a “bedroom” in which spirit tablets of the ancestors are usually stored in. Only during the times when the heirs conduct the sacrificial rituals will the tablets be moved into the hall (“Minnan Culture”).
Figure 2: An ancestral hall from the Southern Song Dynasty
When it comes to the time of special occasions such as that of the worshipping of ancestors, the hall becomes a large conference hall. The order of which the family worship occurs is: 先拜祖宗，又拜族长，再拜长辈, or the ancestors, the patriarch, the elders. The ancestors being the deceased members of the family, the patriarch being the current head of the family, and the elders being all elderly people who are alive in the family. The time of sacrifice usually occurs during events such as the Qingming Festival, Winter Solstice, the birthday of the oldest ancestor or the date on which the ancestral hall was built. The events during each worshipping ceremony are very formal, including: hanging of red lanterns, pasting red rhyme couplets, wearing red clothes, playing drums, setting off firecrackers, lighting incense, toasting, and kneeling in front of those who are worshipped. Some also ask monks to preach philosophical texts in front of the portraits of their ancestors (“Local Folklore and Culture of Fujian”). Other than as a space for worshipping and sacrificing for the ancestors, ancestral halls are also places where family disputes are settled and many family rules and regulations are established there in front of the ancestors’ portraits. Education of the young also happens in the halls and private teachers are constantly invited to have their lectures there. Back then, ancestral halls were mainly used for formal events. (“The Culture of Ancestral Halls”).
Ancestral halls are not only the most well-preserved ancient buildings in Southern Fujian but also important artifacts of traditional culture. Each hall is an object symbolic of the condensed family history by recording stories of family inheritance, prosperity, and humble beginnings. It is clear that they contain valuable historical and cultural evidence that can greatly influence our views on the development of Southern Fujianese culture.
About the author
Yixuan Wu is currently a student at International School Manila in Taguig City who wishes to pursue his goal of going to the US for college. Although a full Chinese in blood, he has lived in the Philippines for most of his life and has interacted and befriended many people of the Lannang heritage. He has been entrenched with creative writing exploring topics such as culture, identity and heritage. He would like to help increase the awareness and interest in the preservation of the Lannang heritage by helping with the online publications, and also through creating content for videos that helps to inspire other people. When he is neither writing nor rushing school work, he would either explore different genres of music or just chat with friends.
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