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|Literal meaning||stove master|
|Alternative Chinese name|
|Literal meaning||stove god, stove spirit|
|Vietnamese alphabet||Táo Quân|
In Chinese folk religion and Chinese mythology, the Kitchen God, named Zao Jun or Zao Shen, is the most important of a plethora of Chinese domestic gods that protect the hearth and family. In addition he is celebrated in Vietnamese culture as well.
It is believed that on the twenty third day of the twelfth lunar month, just before Chinese New Year he returns to Heaven to report the activities of every household over the past year to the Jade Emperor (Yu Huang). The Jade Emperor, emperor of the heavens, either rewards or punishes a family based on Zao Jun's yearly report.
The Story of Zao Jun
Though there are many stories on how Zao Jun become the Kitchen god, the most popular dates back to around the 2nd Century BC. Zao Jun was originally a mortal man living on earth whose name was Zhang Lang. He eventually became married to a virtuous woman, but ended up falling in love with a younger woman. He left his wife to be with this younger woman and, as punishment for this adulterous act, the heavens afflicted him with ill-fortune. He became blind, and his young lover abandoned him, leaving him 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. Despite his shoddy treatment of her, she took pity on him and invited him in. She cooked him a fabulous meal and tended to him lovingly; he then related his story to her. As he shared his story, Zhang Lang became overwhelmed with self-pity and the pain of his error and began to weep. Upon hearing him apologize, Zhang's former wife told him to open his eyes and his vision was restored. Recognizing the wife he had abandoned, Zhang felt such shame that he threw himself into the kitchen hearth, not realizing that it was lit. His former wife attempted to save him, but all she managed to salvage was one of his legs.
The devoted woman then created a shrine to her former husband above the fireplace, which began Zao Jun's association with the stove in Chinese homes. To this day, a fire poker is sometimes referred to as "Zhang Lang's Leg".
Alternatively, there is another tale where Zao Jun was a man so poor he was forced to sell his wife. Years later he unwittingly became a servant in the house of her new husband. Taking pity on him she baked him some cakes into which she had hidden money, but he failed to notice this and sold the cakes for a pittance. When he realized what he had done he took his own life in despair. In both stories Heaven takes pity on Zhang Lang's tragic story. Instead of becoming a vampirish hopping corpse, the usual fate of suicides, he was made the god of the Kitchen, and was reunited with his wife.
The origin of the Kitchen god differs. Another possible story of the "Stove god" is believed to have appeared soon after the invention of the brick stove. The Kitchen god was originally believed to have resided in the stove and only later took on human form. During the Han Dynasty, it is believed that a poor farmer named Yin Zifang, was surprised by the Kitchen god who appeared on Lunar New Year as he was cooking his breakfast. Yin Zifang decided to sacrifice his only yellow sheep. In doing so, he became rich and decided that every winter he would sacrifice one yellow sheep in order to display his deep gratitude.
Worship and customs
Traditionally, every Chinese household would have a paper effigy or a plaque of Zao Jun and his wife (who writes down everything that is said in the household over the year for her husband's report to Jade Emperor) above the fireplace in the kitchen. This tradition is still widely practiced, and Zao Jun was the most highly worshiped god of those who protect the household and family. Offerings of food and incense are made to Zao Jun on his birthday (the third day of the eighth lunar month) and also on the twenty third day of the twelfth lunar month, which marks his return to Heaven to give his New Year's report to the Jade Emperor. On this day, the lips of Zao Jun's paper effigy are often smeared with honey to sweeten his words to Yu Huang (Jade Emperor), or to keep his lips stuck together. After this, the effigy will be burnt and replaced by a new one on New Year's Day. Firecrackers are often lit as well, to speed him on his way to heaven. If the household has a statue or a nameplate of Zao Jun it will be taken down and cleaned on this day for the new year.
Many customs are associated with the Kitchen god, especially defining the date of the "Kitchen god festival", also known as "Little New Year". It is noted that the date differed depending on the location. It is believed that people in northern China celebrate it on the twenty-third day of the twelfth lunar month, while the people in southern China celebrate it on the twenty-fourth. Along with location, traditionally the date may also be determined by one's Profession. For example, "feudal officials made their offerings to the Kitchen god on the twenty-third, the common people on the twenty-fourth, and coastal fishing people on the twenty-fifth". In addition, generally it was the males of the household that lead the sacrificial rites.
In order to establish a fresh beginning in the New Year, families must be organized both within their family unit, in their home, and around their yard. This custom of a thorough house cleaning and yard cleaning is another popular custom during "Little New Year". It is believed that in order for ghosts and deities to depart to Heaven, both their homes and "persons" must be cleansed. Lastly, the old decorations are taken down, and there are new posters and decorations put up for the following Spring Festival.
Independent Chinese families are classified accordingly to the stove they possess. Because circumstances of a divided household, kitchens are shared but never the stove. In the case of a fathers death, The sons divide their fathers household. The eldest son inherits the stove and the younger brothers transfer the coals from the old stove to their own new stoves. This invites the Stove god to join their newly formed households ( Ahern, Martin, Wolf 1978). This process is called "pun chu" or dividing the stove. This indicates the "soul" of the family and it signifies fate of the family.
A Chinese story says," When a shaman informed one family that there were ants and other things in their stove, they destroyed the stove and threw the bricks and coals into the river". A neighbor explained, " There was nothing else they could do. A family will never have peace if they dont have a good stove". (Ahern, Martin, Wolf 1978, 131-133).
Ahern, Martin, Wolf, 1978 state that "The association of Stove God and God is thus an association of God and family. The Character of the relationship is essentially bureaucratic; the family is the smallest corporate unit in society, and the Stove God is the lowest ranking member of a supernatural bureaucracy". This relates a correlation of the Stove god and the importance of this deity is to the family unit (pg.133).
The domestic deity is seen as being in charge of watching over the home life. It has been expressed that his presence is more like that of a policeman sent from above to observe the family. This practice is known as a bureaucratization of religion in Chinese society. The Jade Emperor is in charge of an administration divided into bureaus, and each bureaucrat-god takes responsibility for a clearly defined domain or discrete function. The Kitchen God would thus serve the role of the home domain as he would overlook the daily dynamics of a family, the members and their behaviour (Ting, 2002, pg.326).
Ting, 2002, also states that there are 3 levels of Cosmology containing an organization of heaven is like that of the organization on earth. With a supreme deity- an Emperor (Jade Emperor or Heavenly God) — Local Officials (City gods) — Commoners (gods of the hearth)(pg.326). This confirms the organization of the heavens and how the Kitchen god reports to higher level God, the Jade Emperor.
According to Mann 1997, There is another god that shares the realm of the household. "Pollution, sickness, and death were everyday concerns for women in the household as well as the focal points of their spiritual and ritual lives. Within their households they worshiped the deities who oversaw these homely concerns. The goddess of the household were territorial deities who shared the domain with the Kitchen God, worshiped by men. This God is known as the Purple Goddess/ or Privy Goddess/". The Privy goddess was worshipped only by woman and no temples have been erected in her honor and has no relation or interaction with the Kitchen god (pg.,186).
Zao Jun in literature
Zao Jun's story is interwoven with a feminist spin into the protagonist's story in Amy Tan's novel The Kitchen God's Wife. She reflects on her life story as a Chinese American woman. She uses the symbolism of the Kitchen god's story and uses it as a parallel towards modern day life. She outlines the patriarchy that still exists within modern day life but more significantly in Chinese cultural practices. Tan also illustrates several facets of the humble status of women in Chinese society in the early 20th century (Tan, 1991).
In Tan's story, there is an elaborate description of the coming of Zao Jun. The character Winnie goes into detail about how he came to be and attempts to address cultural struggles as she removes the picture of the Kitchen God from her daughter Pearl's stove, as she does not believe this is the kind of luck Pearl needs. She then promises to fill the altar with the image of another god. In addition to this cultural struggle there is also a feminist undertone at the core, suggesting that this ritual is sexist, outdated, and inappropriate in today's world. The story can be viewed as a struggle between traditionalism and biculturalism (Tan, 1991).
In popular culture
Zao Jun was one of the minor gods played in Supernatural's 5th series "Hammer of the Gods".
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