Torn Apart & Together Again in Death: Tragic Legends of the Kitchen Gods
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. ( 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 ( 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. ( 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. ( 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.
A Golden Carp ( CC BY-ND 2.0 )
According to legends, in a forest lived a woodcutter named Trọng Cao and his wife, Thị Nhi. They were very poor and Trong Cao was often unable to earn enough to buy their food. Frustration and worry drove him to drink, leading him to inflict all manner of abuse on his wife. One day, Trong Cao’s abuse became too much for Thi Nhi. She fled their cottage and never came back.
Thi Nhi wandered in the forest for weeks until she came upon a hunter’s home. The hunter was a kind man; he gave her food and permitted her to rest in his home. Thi Nhi stayed and kept house for him as she had nowhere else to go. After some time, Thi Nhi and the hunter were married and lived together peacefully.
One day, when Tết Nguyên Đán ("Feast of the First Morning of the First Day") was approaching and the hunter was out in the forest, a beggar knocked at the door of the cottage and asked for some food. Thi Nhi prepared a meal for him and, while he was eating, suddenly recognized him as her former husband, Trọng Cao.
Thi Nhi did not have much time to react to this new knowledge as Trong Cao was still eating when she heard the steps of her returning second husband. Thi Nhi panicked and hid Trong Cao under a haycock near the house. Unaware of the beggar’s presence, the hunter set fire to the hay to use the ashes as fertilizer.
When Trong Cao found himself ablaze, his first impulse was to cry out. However, he remembered the lady’s kindness and feared that her husband might harm her if he discovered him there. Therefore, Trong Cao remained silent. As fire consumed the haystack, Thi Nhi was torn with grief. She realized that her former husband was meeting death for her sake, but she could neither save Trọng Cao from the fire nor tell her new husband. In her guilt, she threw herself into the fire to die with Trong Cao. As Thi Nhi threw herself into the fire, her shocked husband unsuccessfully tried to pull her back. Not giving up, the hunter rushed into the fire to save her. However, it was too late and the fire consumed him as well.
The Heavenly Emperor saw this sad event and was so moved by the three mortals’ devotion to each other that he decided to help them live together forever. He changed them into the three hearthstones around the cooking fire, where they became the Tao Quan (“Kitchen Gods”), giving them the task of looking after all household affairs on earth.
Vietnamese Kitchen Gods (Public Domain)
Every year, on the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month, the night before the New Year became a time to bid farewell to the family’s kitchen gods, who then return to heaven to report on the family’s doings in the past year to the Heavenly Emperor. After the ceremony, the three gods ride on carps provided by the family to the heavens.
Chinese Kitchen Gods (Public Domain)
The Violence Behind the Comfort: A Lesson in Duality
It may seem strange that something so warm as the kitchen and something as happy as a celebration could be centered around tales of heartbreaks. However, the symbolism of the Japanese god of the stove may give us a clue on the philosophy behind these stories.
Kōjin, or Sanbō-Kōjin, is the Japanese god of fire, the hearth and the kitchen. He is sometimes called Kamado-gami (“the God of the Stove”). Although images of Kōjin do not appear widely until the Muromachi Era (15th century CE), Kōjin’s origin may predate the introduction of Buddhism to Japan.
Sanbō-Kōjin, Japanese god of fire, the hearth and the kitchen (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The name Sanbō-Kōjin means “three-way rough deity”, and he is considered a deity of uncertain temper. Kōjin appears as a wrathful deity, commanding 98,000 demon attendants while subjugating the wicked. He hates uncleanness and is worshiped in kitchens as the deity of fire. Kōjin has various forms, including three faces and six arms, or one face and four arms, or eight faces and eight arms. He is said to destroy all impurity and is responsible for watching over the household and reporting any misdeeds to the god of the village or city. These reports are then discussed, and the according rewards or punishments are assigned by an assembly of gods in the tenth month of the traditional lunar calendar.
Although Kōjin represents fire, a destructive force, he embodies fire that is controlled and turned toward a good purpose. Therefore, Kōjin represents violent forces that are turned toward the good of humankind. This representation is very similar to sufferings of the mortals in the Chinese and Vietnamese mythology which, in the end, were turned towards a good purpose for mankind. Another interpretation is this: suffering cleanses one’s heart and it is a necessary part of development.
Clean the Kitchen and Make a Fresh Start for the New Year
In order to establish a fresh beginning in the New Year, families in Asia are traditionally organized both within their family unit, in their home, and around their yard to clean. This custom of a thorough house cleaning and yard cleaning is another popular custom relating to the Kitchen Gods stemming from the philosophy that they embody. It is believed that in order for the deities to depart to heaven, the family home and "persons" must be cleansed. This ritual continues until after the ceremony where old decorations are taken down and new posters and decorations are put up for the following Spring Festival.
A woman makes an offering to a Chinese Kitchen God shrine. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
To further illustrate the relationship of the kitchen and family relationships, to this day traditional Chinese families are classified according to the stove they possess. In circumstances of a divided household, kitchens are shared but never the stove. In the case of a father’s death, the sons divide their father’s household. The eldest son inherits the stove and the younger brothers transfer the coals from the old stove to their own new stoves to invite the kitchen gods to join their newly formed households. This process is called pun chu (“dividing the stove”) which also indicates the division of the ‘soul’ of the family. As the stove is divided, each family members could then keep a part of their family’s soul in their new homes.
Top image: A statue of a Kitchen God - CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 with flames
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