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The Kitchen God

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About a week prior to the lunar New Year, on the twenty-third or twenty-fourth day of the twelfth lunar month, the Kitchen God, the most important domestic deity, is transported to the Jade Emperor, the ruler of the heavens, to report on the family's behavior from the previous year. The Kitchen God is represented by a paper image and is hung throughout the year near the family's stove. Long considered the soul of a Chinese family, the stove is where all is seen and heard. To encourage a good report, families smear the Kitchen God's mouth with honey or molasses, to sweeten his tongue. They remove his image from the stove and then burn it to send his spirit to the heavens. Some families offer spirit money during the deity's burning and even dip him in liquor to produce a bright flambe. When New Year's Eve arrives, a new Kitchen God is posted to replace the old one for another year of observation.

Today, many spiritual supply stores offer Kitchen Gods that are vertical wooden plaques painted red with gold Chinese calligraphy in addition to the traditional paper ones. These versions are intended to be permanent fixtures in your kitchen and Kitchen God joss papers are sold separately for his annual burning.

The man who would be kitchen god

It's said that the Kitchen God was a mortal named Zhang, a wealthy farmer whose lands and rivers flowed with abundance. Grains flourished in. his fields, fish filled his rivers, and herds of livestock grazed his land, But Zhang wanted more. He took a mistress who drove his devoted wife away from their home. In the couple's excessive indulgences, Zhang and his mistress exhausted all of his wealth, and soon the woman deserted him for another man. Zhang, left with nothing, became a homeless beggar with no hope or will to live. So weak from starvation was Zhang that he suddenly collapsed fully expecting to die. He awoke in a mist of fog, which turned out to be the smoke from the hearth of a warm kitchen that welcomed all who possessed empty stomachs. Noticing Zhang's poor state, the kitchen girl fed and revived him. Nourished and bound by deep gratitude, Zhang sought to thank the mistress of the house, who was about to enter the kitchen from the outside garden. As she approached the door, he saw the mistress through a window and recognized her as his wife! Distraught and desperate, Zhang jumped into the hearth just as she entered the room, and the flame of shame grew large. Although Zhang's wife urgently tried to douse the fire, Zhang's ashes flew to the heavens in a huge, single pheew!

Upon hearing of Zhang's story, the Jade Emperor declared Zhang to be the Kitchen God. The heavenly ruler proclaimed that one who lived and learned as Zhang earned the gift of all-knowing and all-seeing and would influence the heavens year in and year out.

From Good Luck Life by Rosemary Gong. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission.

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