The Kitchen God (Zao Jun) is among the oldest household deities in the pantheon of Chinese tradition, dating from 133 BC. He is considered to be the link between man and God, his role being protector of the wellbeing of the household and observer of family behavior. Also known as Stove God, his role extends to guarding against kitchen misfortunes and, equally important, to enhancing the nutrition and deliciousness of food.
For millennia, every Chinese household and restaurant kitchen exhibited a Kitchen God in the form of a statue, wood plaque, or picture that was placed above the fireplace or stove. Offerings were regularly made to these representations as recompense for wrong doings and as supplication for good fortune. The most auspicious time for making offerings has been the 23rd day of the last month of the year (in northern China) and on the 24th day (in southern China), one week before the Chinese Lunar New Year. These dates are known as the Kitchen God Day.
Offerings range from simple bowls of tangerines or oranges, symbolizing the sweetness and the wholeness of life, or three glasses of rice wine to such complex offerings as a meal comprising whole poached chickens, roasted pork, a vegetable dish, fruit and wine. Three sticks of incense are lit at the Kitchen God altar to which the supplicants bow three times towards heaven. The belief underlying the custom is that the Kitchen God will consume the offerings before ascending to heaven where he reports to the supreme spiritual being, the Jade Emperor. A good report on the family’s achievements augers blessings, just as a poor report portends punishment. Fruits or other sweet foods are given in hopes of sweetening the Kitchen God’s words, and liquor is proffered so that anything negative he reports will be cast into doubt by his state of inebriation. Some fearful or suspicious families smear sticky honey on their Kitchen God’s lips with the intention of rendering him unable to speak.
Being a patriarchal tradition, preparations of offerings to the Kitchen God were traditionally made by women. The actual offering of the foods, however, was enacted by the men.
The Origin of the Kitchen God The most popular story about how Zao Jun became the Kitchen God dates as far back as the second century BC. It tells how Zao Jun, originally a mortal man named Zhang Lang, married a virtuous woman, with whom he eventually became bored after falling in love with a younger woman. He left his wife for the younger woman and, as punishment for this adulterous act, the heavens afflicted him with terrible ill-fortune. He became blind, and the young woman abandoned him. He had to resort to begging to support himself.
Once, while begging for alms, he happened across the house of his former wife. Being blind, he did not recognize her. Being the virtuous woman she was, she took pity on him, prepared a beautiful meal for him, and tended to his many ailments. Grateful, Zhang Lang wept over his foolishness and recanted the errors of his ways. His tears grew copious, and the virtuous wife urged Zhang to cease his crying and open his eyes. He was shocked to find his vision restored and to realize that the woman who had so generously attended him was none other than the wife he had abandoned. Zhang’s shame was enormous. Filled with remorse, he threw himself into the burning kitchen hearth from which not even the virtuous wife could save him.
Setting Up Your Kitchen God Altar Several weeks before the start of Chinese New Year, your dwelling should be cleaned from one end to the other. One week prior to the start of the New Year, the Kitchen God himself must be cleaned. These acts purify your home and symbolize a fresh beginning from which blessings can flow.
A Kitchen God should be located near the stove with a space in front of it reserved for the placement of offerings such as a bowl of fruit or three small Chinese teacups filled with wine. There should also be room enough for a vessel holding three sticks of incense, before which supplicants can bow three times. Once the incense has completely burned, the offerings of food and drink can be consumed.