Who is the Kitchen God?
One Chinese legend has it that the Kitchen God was a rich farmer named Zhang, who enjoyed a good life, thanks to his kind and hardworking wife, Guo. Life was a breeze for him as his wife took care of the chores – catching fish, herding pigs and fattening the ducks.
His downfall came when he brought home a pretty and carefree woman who chased his wife out. When his fortunes dwindled, his lover ran off with another man, and Zhang became a beggar.
Referring to The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan, a post by Ashvamegh Team on Questioning Myth says the starving Zhang ended up in the house of a kind woman, who turned out to be his wife.
When he realised this, he was ashamed and hid in the fireplace and was burnt to death.
The Jade Emperor then made him the Kitchen God and commanded him to watch over each household, reporting to him the behaviour of its inhabitants.
This myth was revised by Amy Tan in the novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife, in which the Kitchen God was said to be a poor mason with ill luck. In desperation, he sold his wife to make ends meet. One day, he unknowingly worked for his wife’s new husband. He failed to recognise her but, out of the goodness of her heart, she baked sesame cakes with coins inside for him as he was leaving.
The mason stopped by a teahouse and met a traveller who asked for one of his cakes. When the latter bit into it and found money, he convinced the mason to sell all the cakes to him.
The mason foolishly agreed, thinking that he had come upon some good fortune.
When he learnt the truth of how his wife was secretly helping him, he committed suicide out of shame. The Ruler (in Heaven) made him the Kitchen God for his honesty and goodness.
A popular myth tells of how the Kitchen God (Zao Jun), or God of the Hearth, presides over the hearth and takes care of the family’s well-being. Each year, he ascends to Heaven on the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month, and returns on the third day of the Lunar New Year, while other household gods return a day later.
In the old days, the deity is represented by a piece of red paper written with his name, and stuck over the fireplace. Over time, it was replaced by a red metal plaque.
In the book, Spectrum Of Chinese Culture by Lee Siow Mong, it is said some Chinese homes had pictures of the Kitchen God as an old deity drawn on red paper. After he ascends to Heaven, the paper is taken down and burnt. A new one is put up before his return.
Traditionally, it is said that only men worship this deity. When the Kitchen God told of man’s sufferings to the Jade Emperor, he sent good fortune and blessings to the family.
This deity is regarded as “the greatest unifying figure” in the family, as the hearth is the pivot of family life. All family members depend on the hearth for their three daily meals.
According to the book Disappearing Customs Of China, the Kitchen God is reputed to be “the most earnest deity” of the household for staying at his post the whole year through. In the olden day days, when earthen ovens or charcoal stoves were used, the walls and chimney of the hearth were covered in soot and grime, as the altar of the Kitchen God was next to the fireplace.
Day and night, for 360 days, he would be at his post, tolerating the onslaught of oil, steam, smoke and heat as families prepared their daily meals or feasts. He would watch them eat all sorts of glorious foods.
Each family would appease the deity during his annual send-off to report to the Jade Emperor. They would serve him sugar, dried persimmons, dates, rice cake, tea – and hope that he would speak well of them. He also has sesame seed cakes to savour on his trip.
In today’s modern households, where gas and electric ovens are used, many Chinese families have stopped praying to the Kitchen God. The deity is said to have retired and gone back to Heaven with his wife. – Majorie Chiew