Inscription: ‘The disciple of xxx [place, erased] xxx mao [name, erased] signed respectfully.
To offer a Hu in front of the shrine of Three Deities [Sanguandadi, who are in charge of Sky, Earth and Water].
Offered [Hu] on an auspicious day of the 5th month in the Bingyin year of the Jiaqing reign [corresponding to AD 1806,the 11th year of the Jiaqing].’
From the Tang Dynasty until the end of the Ming Dynasty court officials carried these tablets, called Hu, when in the presence of the Emperor. It was held in front of the courtier’s face as he bowed deeply. Since it was inappropriate to take such tablets home because of the access they gave to restricted areas of the court they were handed out and collected by the court doorkeepers. By the time of the Qing Dynasty they were collected as antiquarian curiosities. It may well be that the Hu itself is earlier than its inscription, recording its presentation to a temple deity.
I am grateful to the learned Yuan Sheng at Eskenazi Ltd for deciphering the inscription.