In this Room
The Wu family owned an extensive complex of buildings in the town of Tung-shan. Their reception hall was the largest and most important building in a courtyard surrounded by other structures that made up their family compound.
When receiving guests in the reception hall, the heads of the household may have sat on a wooden couch, softly lit by lanterns, and backed by a resplendent folding screen. Their most important visitors would have been seated next to the family leaders in hardwood chairs. Less important guests were placed farther away in smaller chairs, and the least important guests would have occupied stools off to the side.
As a special room for important occasions, the owners would have decorated the space with their most prized works of art. They would have hung painted scrolls and examples of calligraphy in the spaces between the room's massive pillars. Beautiful wooden side tables and chests-decorative in their own right-would have held rare ceramics and bronzes, perhaps passed down from generation to generation. Richly embroidered cushions and pillows would have made the seating more comfortable, and given the room a luxurious ambiance.
In addition to receiving important guests, the Wu family could also use their reception hall for ceremonies to honor their deceased ancestors. By rearranging the room, they could place long altar tables beneath ancestor portraits, where family members could make offerings of food and incense. They might have displayed a family shrine, too, before which family members could offer prayers and ask for their ancestor's blessings and assistance. The Chinese believed that if their ancestors were honored and cared for in the afterlife, all would go well for their living descendents.
Reception Hall Furniture
The large central hall of a traditional upper class Ming home was multi-functional and generally served both religious and secular purposes. Because of its scale and ceremonial function however, its furniture was usually grand and formally arranged in symmetrical groupings.
When set for rituals involving ancestral worship, the hall typically featured a long "altar" table in its central bay. Placed against the back wall, it was the focal point of the room and it held the ancestor tablets, censers, and ceremonial vessels used in worship of the family lineage. Flanking the main altar table were calligraphic plaques reciting Confucian virtues and centered above the table was a portrait of the ancestor or ancestors being honored.
Shown on the end wall of this reception hall is a house shrine (sen-chu). Resembling a miniature hall, its three bays each contain a spirit tablet demonstrating a second type of traditional ancestral altar arrangement. Large storage cabinets were often placed side-by-side on the end walls.
The Hall of Increased Humility
The central bay of a traditional reception hall usually featured calligraphic inscriptions: a large ceiling plaque bearing the name of the hall and, flanking the altar table, a pair of wall or column plaques reciting Confucian virtues. Made of carved wood and gesso, these writings were more durable than calligraphy written on paper or silk and the family chose the words carefully to reflect their own moral values and cultural refinement.
While the 18th Century ceiling plaque shown here is not original to the Wu Family Reception Hall, its sentiment is perfect. Written in the calligraphic style of the eminent literatus Tung Ch'i-ch'ang (1555-1636), it reads: "The Hall of Increased Humility" (ch'ien-i-t'ang).
Confucius taught that regardless of rank, title, or accomplishment a virtuous person always acted with humility. The family rituals conducted in the hall would gain humility and virtue for all members of the household.
The pair of column plaques are equally Confucian and family oriented. They read:
From generation to generation we whole-heartedly