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The Spirit Tablet: Supernatural Objects in Chinese Ghost Stories


Imagine a dimly lit room, filled with the scent of incense and the hushed whispers of the unseen. A lone figure stands before a small wooden tablet, its surface etched with intricate characters. This is not a prayer for a benevolent deity, but a plea to a restless spirit, a desperate attempt to bridge the gap between the living and the dead. This is the spirit tablet, a powerful and enigmatic object that has captivated imaginations and fueled countless Chinese ghost stories for centuries.

This blog post will embark on a journey into the fascinating world of the spirit tablet, exploring its history, significance, and uses in Chinese folklore. We’ll unravel the mysteries surrounding this ancient artifact and discover how it continues to hold a powerful presence in both traditional and modern Chinese culture.

Table of Contents

History and Significance

The spirit tablet, known in Chinese as a “shén bài” (神牌), has a long and complex history deeply entwined with ancient Chinese beliefs and rituals. Its roots can be traced back to the ancient practice of ancestor worship, where families would honor their departed loved ones with offerings and rituals. The spirit tablet served as a physical representation of the deceased, a place for their spirit to reside and receive veneration.

The earliest forms of spirit tablets were simple wooden plaques or pieces of bamboo inscribed with the deceased’s name and lineage. Over time, these tablets evolved in both form and function. They became more elaborate, often adorned with intricate carvings, calligraphy, and colorful decorations. They also began to serve a more symbolic purpose, evolving from a mere representation of the deceased to a powerful vessel of their spirit.

The spirit tablet’s spiritual significance lies in its ability to connect the living with the dead. It represents the deceased’s presence in the afterlife and serves as a conduit for communication with the spirit realm. By invoking the deceased’s spirit through the tablet, families could seek guidance, protection, and even retribution.

The Spirit Tablet in Chinese Ghost Stories

The spirit tablet has become a staple in countless Chinese ghost stories, adding layers of mystery, suspense, and supernatural intrigue. It often appears as a central element in these narratives, acting as a catalyst for the unfolding events and highlighting the complex relationship between the living and the dead.

Types of Spirit Tablets

Spirit tablets can take on different forms and functions, depending on the specific story and its context. Here are a few common types:

  • Ancestral Tablets: These tablets are dedicated to the spirits of deceased ancestors and serve as a focal point for ancestor worship.
  • Memorial Tablets: These tablets commemorate the deceased and are often placed in temples or cemeteries.
  • Ghost Tablets: These tablets represent the spirits of those who have died tragically or under suspicious circumstances. They are often used to appease the restless spirits or seek justice for their deaths.

Story Examples

Chinese ghost stories offer a rich tapestry of narratives featuring the spirit tablet. Let’s explore some notable examples:

  • “The Legend of the White Snake”: This classic tale features a spirit tablet that plays a crucial role in the protagonist’s quest for love and redemption.
  • “The Ghost Bride”: In this chilling story, a spirit tablet is used to summon a ghostly bride, highlighting the dangers of defying ancient traditions.
  • “The Strange Case of the Spirit Tablet”: This chilling tale features a haunted spirit tablet that connects a young woman to a tragic past, leading to a series of supernatural events.

Different Uses

The spirit tablet plays a diverse role in Chinese ghost stories, often serving as a powerful tool for both good and evil. Here are some of its common functions:

  • Summoning Spirits: The spirit tablet is a vital instrument for summoning spirits, both benevolent and malevolent. Through rituals and incantations, the tablet can act as a bridge to the afterlife, allowing the living to interact with spirits.
  • Protecting the Living: In many stories, the spirit tablet is used to ward off evil spirits or supernatural entities. It can be placed in homes, temples, or cemeteries as a talisman to protect the living from harm.
  • Solving Mysteries: The spirit tablet can also play a key role in solving supernatural mysteries. By communicating with the deceased, the living can uncover secrets, unravel past events, and seek justice for those who have been wronged.

The Spirit Tablet in Modern Media

The spirit tablet continues to hold a strong presence in modern Chinese culture, captivating audiences in movies, television shows, and contemporary literature. It often serves as a powerful symbol of the supernatural, adding a layer of suspense and intrigue to modern narratives.

  • Movies: Films like “The Shawkshank Redemption” (Chinese adaptation) and “The Ghost Bride” incorporate the spirit tablet as a central element, evoking themes of justice, redemption, and the enduring power of the supernatural.
  • TV Shows: Popular television dramas like “The Ghost Whisperer” (Chinese adaptation) feature characters who can communicate with spirits using spirit tablets, blending ancient traditions with modern storytelling techniques.
  • Literature: Modern authors continue to explore the themes of spirituality and the supernatural through the lens of the spirit tablet. Contemporary novels often delve into the complexities of ancestor worship and the impact of the past on the present.


Q1: What is the difference between a spirit tablet and a spirit board?

A: The spirit tablet and the spirit board are distinct objects with different origins and functions. While both are associated with communication with spirits, the spirit tablet is a physical representation of the deceased, while the spirit board is a tool for channeling spirits through the use of letters and numbers.

Q2: Can anyone create a spirit tablet?

A: Traditionally, spirit tablets were created by individuals with specialized knowledge and skills. They were often crafted by calligraphers, artisans, or religious figures with a deep understanding of ancestral rituals and spiritual practices.

Q3: Is there a specific way to write on a spirit tablet?

A: Yes, the inscription of a spirit tablet is a sacred act that requires meticulous attention to detail. The deceased’s name, lineage, and other relevant information are often written in a specific script or calligraphy style, following established traditions and protocols.

Q4: Are there any modern-day rituals associated with spirit tablets?

A: While the practice of ancestor worship has evolved over time, spirit tablets still hold significance in modern-day rituals. Families may still place offerings of food, incense, and paper money before the tablet, paying respects to their ancestors and seeking their guidance.

Q5: What are some other supernatural objects found in Chinese ghost stories?

A: Besides the spirit tablet, Chinese ghost stories feature a diverse range of supernatural objects, including:

  • Ghostly Mirrors: These mirrors are said to reveal hidden truths or reflect spirits.
  • Amulets: These protective charms are used to ward off evil spirits or supernatural entities.
  • Magic Swords: These swords are often wielded by heroes to vanquish demons or evil spirits.
  • Paper Money: These symbolic offerings are burned to appease the spirits and ensure their well-being in the afterlife.


The spirit tablet remains a powerful symbol of the supernatural in Chinese folklore, reflecting the complex relationship between the living and the dead. It is a testament to the enduring power of ancient beliefs and rituals, and how these traditions continue to shape cultural expressions in modern times. From traditional ghost stories to contemporary media, the spirit tablet serves as a reminder of the mystical and spiritual world that lies beyond our perception, inviting us to ponder the mysteries of life and death.

While the spirit tablet may seem like a relic of the past, its symbolism resonates with a timeless human yearning for connection, understanding, and meaning. It reminds us that the stories we tell, the objects we cherish, and the beliefs we hold shape who we are and how we navigate the world around us.