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Religions in China - Zaoshen 灶神, the Kitchen God(dess)


The Kitchen God or Goddess (zaoshen 灶神, also written 竈神), also called Kitchen Lord (zaojun 灶君) or Kitchen King (zaowang 灶王), is an ancient deity in popular religion. From the Jin period 晉 (265-420) on he became one of the deities judging over failure and success of human lives.
A kind of kichen god is first mentioned in the Confucian Classic Liji 禮記 "Book of Rites", where it is said that the king of Zhou erected seven altars (si 祀) on behalf of the people. The word si might be interpreted as a kind of sacrificial stove.
There are several interpretations about the origin of the Kitchen God. Some scholars believe that this deity was a merging of the god of fire (huoshen 火神, see Zhu Rong 祝融) and the original kitchen god. This theory can be supported by a statement in the book Huainanzi 淮南子, where it is said that Emperor Yandi 炎帝, the God of Fire, died in the stove. Xu Shen's 許慎 commentary to the Five Classics, Wujing yiyi 五經異義, says that a son of Emperor Zhuan Xu 顓頊, Li 黎, was no one else than Zhu Rong, the controller of fire, and kitchen god. According to another theory, the Kitchen Deity had the name Xianchui 先炊 "Earlier steam". Zhang Shoujie's 張守節 commentary to a sentence in the Shiji 史記 holds that Xianchui was a maternal steam, i.e. stove, deity. The book Liji describes ritual vessels and explains that women cooked the offering meals and presented them on dishes and in bottles. A Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) commentary says that their deity was Xianchui, who was also called Laofu 老婦 "the Old Woman".
The God of Fire is also given a name, according to Chinese custom. Xu Shen says that his name was Su Jili 蘇吉利, while a fragment of the Za wuxing shu 雜五行書 quoted in the Houhanshu 後漢書 says that he was called Shan Ziguo 禪子郭 and used to wear yellow clothes. The Tang period 唐 (618-907) book Youyang zazu 酉陽雜俎 calls him Wei 隗, or Shan Ziguo 單子郭, or Rangzi 壤子. The question whether Zaoshen is a god or a goddess, is likewise open. In the most ancient sources it seems that Zaoshen was a female, as attested in the Liji, but also by Sima Biao's 司馬彪 commentary to the Daoist book Zhuangzi 莊子, where it is said that Zaoshen used to wear red robes, and had the appearance of a pretty girl. The Sui period 隋 (581-618) author Du Taiqing 杜臺卿 quotes in his book Yuzhu baodian 玉蠟寶典 from a text called Zaoshu 灶書 "Book of the Stove", where it is said that Su Jili had the name Tuanjia 摶頰 as a female. Xu Shen's commentary Wujing yiyi also mentions the name Wang Tuanjia 王摶頰, as that of a female deity, and Duan Chengshi's 段成式 Youyang zazu says that Madame Qingji 卿忌 had six daughters which all had the name Chaqia 察洽 (or Jiqia 祭洽).
The biography of Guan Lu 管輅 in the Sanguozhi 三國志 says that the wife of a certain Wang Ji 王基 gave birth to a son who crawled into the stove and became the Kitchen God. His name was Song Wuji 宋無忌, a name also mentioned in a commentary to the chapter on the Fengshan sacrifice Fenshan shu 封禪書 in the Shiji. All these various names, just like Shen Yin 沈堙, might be varying interpretations of one single concept of the imagination that cockroaches (chan 蟬, i.e. zhang 蟑) in the kitchen were in fact gods spying out human life.
The Daoist text Taishang ganying pian 太上感應篇 quotes from a commentary saying that Zaoshen had six daughters that were called the six Kui Jade Girls 六癸玉女. The occupation of Zaoshen was seen as the preparation of food for all humans. Later on, when the Daoist pantheon was more and more brought into a systematic shape, she (or he) was said to have the task to supervise human behaviour, and to report this to the Heavenly Emperor 天帝 who would reward or punish them. This function is described in the text Huainan wanbi shu 淮南萬畢術 that is quoted in the Song period 宋 (960-1279) encyclopedia Taiping yulan 太平御覽, but also in the much earlier text Baopuzi 抱朴子, where a statement can be found about the regular reports of the Kitchen God to Heaven, large reports being delivered once a lunar year, and minor reports all three days. The book Taishang ganying pian includes a similar statement. In this text it is also said that one stove was inhabited by 36 deities that were not only delivering reports, but also able to amend mischief, to avert death, and to repell evil spirits, or, in case of bad behaviour of the stove users, to bring disaster upon them. The book Dongchu siming dengyi 東厨司命燈儀 explains that there is virtually a whole administration to supervise human behaviour.
The writing Taishang lingbao buxie zaoyu jing 太上靈寶補謝灶玉經 alleged that there is an old woman living alone on Mt. Kunlun 昆侖 who functions as an inspector of all humans and delivers a monthly report to Heaven that is written down and registered. Because of this eminent position and great influence, it is important that the Kitchen Goddess is offered to regularly, almost on a daily basis. The book Qingjialu 清嘉錄, written by the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) author Gu Tieqing 顧鐵卿, that on the 4th, the 14th and the 24th day of the 6th month (see calendar), sacrifices are brought to the Kitchen Goddess, in order to repent sins and to ask for a good report. On this occasion, rice balls are offered. These dates correspond roughly to the offering season mentioned in the Han period book Liji. Yet in some regions of China, the offerings take place on the 8th day of the 12th lunar month, and a pig and wine are offered to the deity. This fact is recorded in Zong Lin's 宗懔 Jing-Chu suishi ji 荆楚歲時記 from the Liang period 梁 (502-557), and in the Yuzhu baodian from the Sui period.
Later on, many regions chose the 24th day of the last lunar month as the date to bring sacrifices and to pray for a positive testimony. A lot of texts from the Ming 明 (1368-1644) and the Qing period mentioned this ceremony to "send the kitchen goddess up to Heaven" (song zao shang tian 送灶上天), like Shen Bang's 沈榜 Yuanshu zaji 宛署雜記, Liu Tong's 劉侗 Dicheng jingwu lüe 帝城景物略, Tian Rucheng's 田汝成 Xichao leshi 熙朝樂事, or Yu Minzhong's 于敏中 Rixia jiuwen kao 日下舊聞考. Common objects presented to the Kitchen Goddess were sweet cakes, millet cakes, dates, chestnuts, abricots, bean paste, or various soups. The Song period poet Fan Chengda 范成大 has written the poem of offering to the Kitchen Goddess, Ji Zao ci 祭灶詞, in which he describes this ceremony. It is commonly believed that the Kitchen Goddess returns on New Year's Eve or on the New Year's Day. She is received in a ceremony as the "new kitchen goddess" (xinzao 新灶). In some regions the old sacrificial day in summer has been transformed in to birthday of the Kitchen Goddess, which is celebrated on the 3rd day of the 8th lunar month.

Sources: Yuan Ke 袁珂 (ed. 1985), Zhongguo shenhua chuanshuo cidian 中國神話傳說詞典 (Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe), pp. 208-209. ● Li Yangzheng 李養正 (ed. 1993), Daojiao shouce 道教手冊 (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe), p. 184. ● Qing Xitai 卿希泰 (1994). Zhongguo daojiao 中國道教 (Shanghai: Zhishi chubanshe), Vol. 3, pp. NNN.

December 22, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail