Chinese Kitchen God
Who Is The Kitchen God?
Would you know the Kitchen God if you saw him? (I mean, someone other than your own brother or sweet husband looking in the fridge in the middle of the night!). When you are done reading this lens, you will know enough about him and his wife(s) to pick the Kitchen God out on the wall of a countryside home in China and tell his story to anyone who is interested.
Where would you find him?
On a woodblock print or poster In the kitchen of someone living in the Chinese countryside, especially in farmers' kitchens, which are often in a small building in back of the rest of their house. The stove is large, because a fire is built inside the stove, fed by grass and other kindling. On one side would be a special niche built into the stove box where you would put your print of the Kitchen God, whose name translates literally as "Stove God."
What would he look like?
He would be in the form of a printed piece of paper, about calendar sized, hanging on the wall or put into a small niche on the stove.
The Kitchen God is portrayed in different ways all across China, sometimes alone, sometimes with his wife, sometimes with two wives, and often with other figures in the picture. He is also portrayed in a more abstract way as his name written on a long strip of wood, no picture at all. The Kitchen God in China comes from the Chinese Folk Religion tradition which dates back to the Shang Dynasty (16-11th Century BCE). That is a long time ago! Perhaps that is why there are so many ways of picturing him.
You will find some images of the kitchen god here on the site. The most common one I have seen throughout China looks more or less like this photo here at the top of the page. It is from a famous woodblock press in Shandong Province.
Is the Kitchen God like Santa Claus?
A little! Read on...
The Kitchen God is a lot like Santa Claus. Just as Santa keeps track of who has been "naughty and nice" in Western countries, the Kitchen God is the one who is responsible for this in Asian countries.
A print of the Kitchen God is watching, in fact, 24 hours a day, and his paper representative is hung in a small niche or cubby by the huge grass and stick fired stove in the kitchen, which is often a separate building right next to the house.
But the differences begin here. If you misbehave, Santa gives you a lump of coal instead of presents. If someone in a Chinese family misbehaves, what happens if far more serious. The Kitchen God takes the full list of family behavior to Heaven to give his report. If the behavior has been good, the family will have good luck (not presents). What if the family has been bad?
What counts as "bad?" It is not so clear... but a family will take care of that ahead of time! Before the Kitchen God goes to report, they will "seal" his lips with sticky candy, honey, or just feed him lots of sweets, so he will forget what has happened and only say "sweet things" in his report.
Can you bribe the Kitchen God? Is candy a bribe? Maybe. How about the carrots we leave for Rudolph the Reindeer and cookies we leave for Santa - are they a bribe? Hard to tell! At any rate, there is one more fun difference. Santa comes down the chimney, but the Kitchen God goes "up" the chimney, because on the day he reports to heaven, his paper image in the kitchen will be burned, and that is how his spirit is released so he can go on his journey to report to Heaven. Santa has his reindeer, and the Kitchen God rides a horse.
The picture shows the Kitchen God on his journey.
Where does the Kitchen God Live?
His home is the Stove
Some time after the first Egyptian Dynasty, a little later than 3,000 BCE, the Chinese Emperor Sui Ren is supposed to have invented the Chinese stove, which helped the people have better health from cooked and not raw food. No one knows the exact timing of the Chinese stove's origin, but no doubt the worship of the Kitchen/Stove God happened soon after that.
How does a Chinese Stove work? The picture here is a model of a country stove. Dried grass and small kindling are put into the back of the stove to make the fire. Often one of the children in the family was assigned the job of keeping the fire going. The food is cooked in the big woks on top of the stove. In this model you can see two niches, one would probably be used for storing condiments and the other as a home for the Kitchen God, whose real name in Chinese translates as the "Stove God."
If this is the stove, where is the Kitchen God? I visited a Daoist Temple one day, and asked if they had a statue of the Kitchen God. The priest told me that they don't have statues of the Kitchen God now (perhaps they once did?). But when I persisted a little, hoping for more information, he got a little cranky and said: "The Kitchen God is everywhere! Wherever there is a Stove, there is a Kitchen God!"
The Kitchen God and his Wife bring good luck to the family - What are the round things at the bottom of this print?
Focusing on the role of the Kitchen God as the one who watches the family to see if they do anything bad misses half the story. If the family was harmonious, or if the Kitchen God's mouth is stuck shut with sticky candy, then his report to heaven will be a good one. In that case, the family will have an auspicious and lucky new year.
The bottom quarter of this print shows representatives of this luck -- the red circles at the top with yellow in the middle are lucky coins, directly under them at the bottom, red with two yellow ovals, looking almost like butterflies, are representative of gold bricks, which in Chinese are not square, but have this interesting shape.
Kitchen God Candy
Something to stick the Kitchen God's mouth shut
This is a photo of the malt candy they use to "sweeten" the lips of the Kitchen God before burning the image to send him off to Heaven where he will report on the family's good and bad deeds. Actually any candy will do. Honey and sugar syrup work too. By offering the Kitchen God candy, it is hoped that he will have a mouthful of sticky goo when reporting about the family, and won't be able to say anything bad about anyone. This is very reminiscent of the list of "naughty or nice" that Santa Claus keeps in the West, In this case, however, there are no presents to come. Instead, the list of good and bad deeds will result in good and bad fortune later in the year.
The Kitchen God brings a report card about the family to the "Jade Emperor" who is in charge of the family's fate. In the West people do not believe in "fate" like they do in China. In China there is a real sense of a person's or family's fate affecting many aspects of life. What the Kitchen God reports to the Jade Emperor is directly connected to the family's fortune and luck of the year ahead. Sacrifices are offered to please the Kitchen God, hoping that he will put in a good word for them. Verses (called couplets, because they usually come in pairs) by the picture of the Kitchen God often reflect this saying things like: "Report good deeds in heaven, protect the family on earth."
More on Kitchen God candy
This photo is of a vendor who sells "Kitchen God" candy in the Beijing area. She was so cheerful and full of fun, we asked her if we could take her photo. If there were a good candidate for the "Kitchen God's Wife," she would win the prize.
Kitchen Gods vary according to their Province or City
What does he look like after all?
There is no one artistic model for the Kitchen God. Each Province and City will have their own style depending on the printing presses and block printing companies that printed the picture. Again, this is a little bit like Santa Claus, who comes in several forms, including the Father Christmas or Saint Nicholas varieties.
In the past, the Kitchen God often appeared alone. But more often he was depicted with his wife and young attendants, and sometimes including civil and military officials on the sides of the drawings.
You can usually see the Kitchen God and his Wife holding what looks like a stick in front of them, which shows their position as an official in the godly administration of Heaven. You will also often see their record books, because, like Santa Claus in the West, their job was to record the good and bad deeds of the family members and report them in Heaven. Some have two sets of verses hung up on scrolls at the edges of the picture - in one version they say:
Going up to Heaven to Report Good Deeds
Coming Down to Earth to Ensure Safety
So you will find versions of the Kitchen God with his wife, with two wives, and all alone, in a very simple design.
The Kitchen God's Wife - Amy Tan
The Kitchen God became better known after Amy Tan wrote her book called the Kitchen God's Wife. This book is quite a classic. If you haven't read it yet, I recommend it completely. I want to let you know, the money I earn from these Squidoo lenses I am passing on to the Peng Cheng Special Education School in Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province. If you want to learn more about the school, you can go to www.characterreflections.com and click on the "Granny Han's School" tab. To learn more about our work, there is also a "neurofeedback" tab at the site. Thank you for ordering through this page!
Is there one wife of the Kitchen God or two?
The story with one wife
One of the most popular stories about this "Stove King" begins with the story of a real person, a very poor man who was so poor he could not afford to keep his wife and had to sell her.
Many years later, without knowing it, this poor man took a job as a servant in the house of her new husband. The wife, knowing how difficult his situation was, baked some cakes in which she had hidden some money and gave them to him. Instead of eating the cakes, he sold them for a pittance. When he realized what he had done, selling the very cakes that his beloved wife had made especially for him, fell into such despair that he took his own life. Responding to the tragedy, Heaven took pity on him and made him the God of the Kitchen, and he was reunited with his wife.
The story with 2 wives
The story begins with a man named Zhang Dan (or Zhang Ziguo) whose wife was virtuous, like the wife in the first story. However Zhang fell in love with a young girl and decided to leave his wife, which of course, was the wrong decision to make! After that the gods plagued him with bad luck to punish him for his wrongdoing. He became blind, the second wife left him and he had nothing left, so he turned to begging for his living. One day, while begging for food, he by chance came to the house of his former wife. Because he was blind, he did not recognize her. His wife, seeing him in such an appalling state, took pity on him, and invited him into her house.
She cooked him a nourishing meal, looked after him lovingly, and encouraging him. Zhang was so moved by her kindness that he began to tell his story in tears. While he was crying, his eyesight was miraculously restored. Upon seeing whom it was who had cared for him so lovingly, he was overcome with embarrassment and shame that he threw himself into the kitchen hearth, not realizing that it was lit. His former wife tried to put the fire out, but she could not manage it.
His remorse and repentance was so touching that she created a shrine for him, and this was said to be the beginning of the Kitchen God tradition.
There is more to the ending - in the end Heaven takes pity on Zhang. Instead of becoming a "hungry ghost" left to wander the world in misery, in honor of his repentance and true love for his wife, Zhang was made the god of the Kitchen and reunited with his wife.
Why does the Kitchen God often have cats, dogs or roosters in his image? - And who are all the people?
The Kitchen God watches everyone in the family from his haven in the kitchen. Let's be even more specific - his name, although translated into English as the "Kitchen God" actually means the "Stove God." Since his precincts are with the family, it is natural for him and his wife to have domestic animals around his home. That is why you see animals in the prints.
The rooster and dog, however, are special. They are representatives of Yin and Yang, or the "past year" and "coming year". The dog is black - what has come before, and the rooster has bright colors, a wish for a bright year coming.
The people in the image are the Kitchen God and his Wife's attendants who look after them, make their dinner, and bring them whatever they need.
Print of the Kitchen God from Luoyang, Henan Province in Central China - In Luoyang he is called the "God of the Stove"
The Kitchen God and his Wife look pretty happy in this print. Perhaps it is because there is usually plenty of grain and other good things in this heavily agricultural area of China. There is a little baby being held up and peeking out at you - this is good luck indeed!
Modern version - The Kitchen God - From a small town in Anhui Province
This is a Kitchen God print from 2012, from a small village in Anhui Province. It doesn't have quite the old feeling of the other ones from other places in China, but it is what is currently in the market in Anhui, an interior province that has not been so much a part of the economic progress China has made in recent years. And it is from 2012 - and I thought you would enjoy seeing what a modern version looks like.
This lens won a purple star award when it was first written for the website Squidoo.
It made me happy to know that it was appreciated.
"This is a remarkable and rare trophy reserved for truly great pages."
You won't find a lot of this information in other places on the net. A lot of original research went into this. And I hope you enjoy it too!
Thank you so much to the Squidoo staff for their encouragement and kindness. They are a rare and wonderful bunch of people themselves.