Leaving my apartment one morning, I noticed this set up next to my neighbor’s front door. Incense was still burning and a large fruit was sitting next to the plaque.
Nothing about the set up struck me as strange. All around Zhuhai I have run into these types of set ups. Small ones like my neighbors can be found alongside the sidewalk, right next to the entrances of shops or apartment buildings.
I began to notice larger set ups are found around Zhuhai particularly in restaurants and transportation hubs. These set ups had a wooden alter piece, filled with a figurine, candles or electronic lights and incense. Sometimes a plate of fruit or small cups of alcohol were placed in front of it.
I spoke to our Chinese colleagues here in the Zhuhai Office and these little shrines seemed to have a range of interpretations. Long time Guangdong resident, Sunny Sui, said they were for good luck. Alters offered a place to pray for good fortune, safety, fertility and offer reverence to the dead.
Our new team member Arthur Wu, a Zhuhai local, explained that there are many gods in the spiritual universe. The early gods or 土地神, tǔdì shén, also土地爷, tǔdì ye, are the nearest to people. These earthly gods can be regarded as the parents of mortals and revered as guardian angels. Shrines to the Earthly gods can be found all over in the cities, villages and small farming communities. If people want to be blessed, they set up in there house or shops and place offerings.
Looking around my own community in Zhuhai, while out buying groceries, I came across a large shrine off the main road.
Inside the brick hutch were several alters and a place to kneel. Candles were set up around the hutch with pools of dried wax as a testament to how many times they had been replaced. A repeated track of chanting was echoing against the stones while large sticks of incense were billowing smoke. In addition to fruit, an entire smoked chicken had also been placed in front of the alter.
These alters are hidden in plain sight here in Zhuhai, as well as in other cities around South China. If you are not looking for them, they are easy to miss. As Zhuhai grows into a more cosmopolitan city there may be more international comforts but some of the people’s deepest beliefs and traditions are still right outside your door.
Want to discover the traditions in China that are hidden in plain sight? Apply now for a summer internship!