Ancestral Altars
Remembering Where You Came From
By Jenny T. Liu, M.A.



An altar is a portal that connects the energies and spirits of different dimensions. It is a place where you can communicate with deities, ancestors, and spirits. For many Asians, there is a strong tie to their ancestors. This love and reverence is celebrated and upheld in the making of an ancestral altar.

In feng shui, an altar represents your connection to the spirit world, your ancestors and the universal energies. It provides a perspective of where you are in the scheme of life. An altar embodies your hope, faith, and belief system. It is a place you can go to when in doubt, when you are scared, and when you seek guidance and confirmation. It is a place where you can garner strength, make your wishes, find empowerment and feel protected.

An altar is where your god(s) and ancestors can communicate with you. Altars remind you of who you are, what you believe in and where you came from. Creating an altar is like having your own church, ashram, or temple in your home.
What are some different types of altars?
There are numerous types of altars based on different cultures, religions, and personal taste. The traditional Chinese altar is built with special measurements based on numerology that has symbolic meaning. The physical structure usually comes with three tiers representing heaven, human, and earth. The highest tier is reserved for deities and gods, the second tier is for the human spirit or ancestors, and the last tier on the ground is for the Earth God.

Some altars come with one or two tiers. On a single-tiered altar, the deities are placed in the center of the tier, with demigods or saints on each side. On a double-tiered altar, the deities are set on the higher level and ancestors on the lower level.
What are the different purposes of altars?

Altars are set up for religious or meditation purposes. If the burial ground orientation of your ancestors is not ideal or does not have good feng shui and cannot be changed, creating an ancestral altar located appropriately in your home can help to ameliorate defeating energies.

A meditation altar may include Chi Art that depicts a deity, or special mantra charm diagrams created for your specific purpose. A meditation area is created in front of the altar.
How do you set up an ancestral altar?
Before setting up your altar, you need to have a positive image or statue of your god. Make sure that the god you worship is synchronized with your purpose or goals in life. For example, if you wish for good business, a deity such as Mocojalo — the God of Business Wealth — should be on your altar. In all cases, the image or statue of your deity should be of high quality and made of natural material with attention to details.

For instance, if you have a statue of Quan Yin, the features of her face should be delicate and symmetrical. Her hands, fingers, and toes should be well defined. She should be holding her bottle of holy water and a rosary or stem of bamboo for blessing. The lotus she is on should have many petals and be floating on water or clouds.

It is of utmost importance that the statue of your god is blessed and empowered to purify the statue of any potentially negative energies — especially if it is an antique. More importantly, empowerment connects the god’s energy with the statue, letting the god know the statue is a home or portal. A priest or master can bless and empower the statues or images of your gods.

In the Chinese tradition, a memorial for your ancestors can be created by writing their names in Chinese calligraphy on red paper. This establishes a portal to their energy. Photos are generally not used as they can cause prolonged sadness or grief preventing you or the deceased from moving on.

Place the statue of your god or your ancestral memorial in the center of their respective tier on the altar. A lotus lamp or electric candle lamp is placed on their left and right. In front of them, place an incense holder. In general, use sandalwood incense or another high-quality incense made of natural ingredients. You also need a bell for summoning deities and your ancestors.

Next, make daily offerings of appreciation to your god and ancestors. In front of the incense holder are usually three cups of water or red wine, or a small cup of water or red wine in front of each deity on the altar. On either side of the altar, you can place fresh fruit, flowers or sweets.

There may be specific fruits, vegetables, foods, charms or written blessings for each deity. On special occasions such as holidays, birthdays or anniversaries, you will make special offerings such as whole chicken or fish, cake, or your ancestor’s favorite foods.
Where do you place altars?
Before placing or moving an altar, calculate an auspicious date for altar placement. Ancestral altars should be placed in an orientation that is based on your ancestors’ birth date. It should be against a solid wall and the room or space should be quiet, well lit, and well ventilated. The altar should not face a staircase, fireplace, bathroom door, bedroom door, a long hallway or anything negative.

Ancestral or meditation altars should be placed to allow space of at least four to five feet in front of it for worship, prayer, and meditation, ideally for more than one person. There can be a small mat or cushion on the floor in front of the altar for longer periods of prayer or meditation. If you are setting up a meditation altar, it is best to locate in it in a room that allows you to have privacy and if possible, a solid wall or screen behind you for support when you are meditating.

Jenny Liu holds a Bachelors’ Degree in Environmental Design from UC Berkeley and a Masters Degree in Architecture from UCLA. She is an expert in the 8,000-year-old Chinese philosophy of Feng Shui who shares her knowledge through seminars, workshops, periodicals and the Internet. Awarded for her Master’s Thesis on Feng Shui, Ms. Liu is a fourth-generation practitioner with her own consulting firm. For info, visit: Liu-FengShui.com or call (626) 272-4901

Return to the November/December Index page