A statue of a Kitchen God - CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 with flames

Torn Apart & Together Again in Death: Tragic Legends of the Kitchen Gods

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For many of us, the kitchen is very important place. Apart from its role as a place for family members to gather, the kitchen often represents the warmth, happiness and harmony within the family. Vietnamese scholar Huỳnh Ngọc Trảng expresses the importance of the kitchen in Vietnam as follows: “The kitchen stove is like the sun: it brings people close together and gathers them around because of its warmth, heat and light . . . the kitchen is the place where food is cooked, so it is the center of life, it is from the kitchen that life is granted.”

From the Kitchen to Heaven

The strong relationship between the kitchen and the familial relationship is shown by the legendary existence of special deities of Asian mythology presiding in household kitchens. Traditionally, just before the Lunar New Year, the kitchen gods would go to Heaven to report to the Heavenly Emperor on his family’s activities during the year.

Chinese painting of Portraits of Jade Emperor and the Heavenly Kings

Chinese painting of Portraits of Jade Emperor and the Heavenly Kings. ( Public Domain )

In China, the family ‘send off’ their kitchen god to heaven to make their report by burning the paper image that had hung over their stove for the entire year. The smoke rising to the heavens symbolically represents his journey to heaven, while fire crackers are lit to speed up the kitchen god’s travel. To ensure a good report before the Heavenly Emperor, honey was rubbed on the lips of the paper god so that the kitchen god would have only sweet things to say to the Heavenly Emperor—or so that the sticky honey would prevent him from opening his mouth and no bad news would be told!

Paper hung in flowering branches for Vietnamese Lunar New Year

Paper hung in flowering branches for Vietnamese Lunar New Year ( Public Domain )

However, the kitchen gods of Asian mythology, also known as guardians of the harmony of the households, were once regular people who suffered in their own family lives. Behind the New Year festivities of sending off the kitchen gods to heaven lie dark legends of heartbreak, abuse and death.

The Blind Man and the Virtuous Woman: Plagued by Ill-Fortune

The most popular story of the Chinese kitchen god dates back to the 2nd Century BC. The kitchen god was once a mortal on earth named Zhang Lang. Zhang Lang married a virtuous woman, but later left her to be with a younger woman. As a punishment for his adultery, the heavens afflicted Zhang Lang with ill-fortune—Zhang Lang became blind and, not long after, his young lover abandoned him. His misfortunes continued until he had to resort to begging to support himself.

One day, when he was begging for alms, Zhang Lang came upon a simple house of his former wife. As he was blind, he did not recognize the woman he betrayed. However, she recognized him, took pity on him and invited him in. She cooked a meal for Zhang Lang and tended to him kindly. As Zhang Lang told her his life’s story, he began to weep remembering his former wife and his treatment of her. Hearing this, Zhang Lang's former wife gently told him to open his eyes and his vision was restored.

When he could finally make out the woman sitting in front of him, Zhang Lang recognized her as the wife he abandoned. However, it appeared that bad luck followed him to the end of his life, as Zhang Lang felt such shame that he threw himself into the kitchen hearth without realizing that it was lit. Despite the virtuous woman’s best efforts to save her former husband, she could only salvage one of his legs. To this day, a fire poker is sometimes referred to as Zhāng lǎng de tuǐ ("Zhang Lang's Leg").

An actor portrays Zhang Lang/Zao Jun, the Kitchen God.

An actor portrays Zhang Lang/Zao Jun, the Kitchen God. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

The devoted wife then created a shrine to Zhang Lang above the fireplace. The Heavenly Emperor took pity on Zhang Lang's tragic story and saved him from becoming a hopping corpse— the usual fate of suicides. Zhang Lang was then given the new name of Zao Jun (“Stove Master”) and was made the god of the Kitchen. When his faithful former wife died, the couple was finally reunited.

Zao Jun - The Kitchen God.

Zao Jun - The Kitchen God. ( Public Domain )

Together in Death: The Wife, the Beggar and the Hunter

The Vietnamese ceremony of Tet Tao Quan (“Kitchen Gods’ Day”) is held at every Vietnamese household. The women of the family cook delicacies such as steamed sticky rice or plain porridge, altars are cleaned and decorated with fresh flowers and fruits, and large bowl of water containing live golden carps is kept aside. The carps are freed into a pond, lake or river after the worshiping ceremonies are finished. It’s believed the three kitchen gods can only travel up to the heavens with the help of golden carps, as a carp is believed to be heaven’s animal and is a very good swimmer. However, behind this celebration is another tragic story.

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