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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), Kitchen King (Zaowang 灶王) or Paternal Kitchen King (Zaowangfu 灶王父), 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.

Sacrifices to the Kitchen God, lit. the "spirit of the stove", in Chinese jizao 祭灶, were a widespread religious ceremony carried out at the end of a lunar year, on the 23rd or 24th day of the 12th lunar month (layue 臘月, see calendar). The sacrifice to the Kitchen God was one of the Five Sacrifices (wusi 五祀).

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 (c. 58-c. 147) commentary on 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 "rectifier of fire" (huozheng 火正), and kitchen god. According to another theory, the Kitchen Deity had the name Xianchui 先炊 "Primordial Steam". Zhang Shoujie's 張守節 (late 7th century) commentary on a sentence in the Shiji 史記 holds that Xianchui was a maternal steam, i.e. stove, deity. The Classic 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 "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 by Duan Chengshi 段成式 (803-863) 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 (d. 306?) commentary on 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 玉燭寶典 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 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 (209-256) 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 on the chapter on the fengshan sacrifices Fenshan shu 封禪書 (ch. 28) 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 or crickets (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" (Liu Kui Yunü 六癸玉女, see Jade Girl). 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 (Tiandi 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) encyclopaedia 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 every three days. The book Taishang ganying pian includes a similar statement. It was believed that the Kitchen God was an arbiter over good and bad behavior and accordingly punished or rewarded the members of each household. Each family sent their kitchen spirit to Heaven. He rode on a cloud horse (yunma> 雲馬) and returned on the 30th day of the month, which is New Year's eve, to bring fortune or disaster, according to the verdict of the Jade Emperor (Yuhuang Dadi 玉皇大帝). 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 scripture Taishang lingbao buxie zaoyu jing 太上靈寶補謝灶玉經 alleged that there was an old woman living alone on Mt. Kunlun 昆侖 who functioned as an inspector of all humans and delivered a monthly report to Heaven that was written down and registered.

Because of this eminent position and great influence of the Kitchen God, it is important that this deity is offered regularly by every family, 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 (1793-1843), says that on the 4th, the 14th and the 24th day of the 6th lunar month, sacrifices were brought to the Kitchen God, in order to repent sins and to ask for a good report. On this occasion, rice balls were offered. In more modern times, the sacrifices consisted of incense, red candles, "stove horses" (caoma 灶馬, i.e. crickets), odorous herbs, tea, dates, persimmon cakes (shibing 柿餅), walnuts, sugar cakes (tangbing 糖餅), "stove sugar" rolls (zaotang 灶糖), vegetable and meat dishes, and wine, as well as burnt paper money (zhiqian 紙錢). The "horse" was in fact symbolized by the sweets and the wine represented to the god, as can be seen in the book Yanjing suishi ji 燕京歲時記 by Fucha Dunchong 富察敦崇 (fl. 1900). In older times, people used to sacrifice a chicken, as attested in Gu Sizhang's 顧思張 Tufenglu 土風錄 and Su Shi's 蘇軾 (1037-1101) Zongbi> 縱筆, or a pig's head, as described in Fan Shihu’s 范石湖 poem Jizao 祭灶. The offerings were placed at the opening of the stove, and the Kitchen God was thus make benevolent (mei zao 媚灶).

In some regions of China, the offerings took not place in summer (a season corresponding to the process fire), but 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 (502-565) 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. Many texts from the Ming 明 (1368-1644) and the Qing period mention this ceremony to "send the kitchen goddess up to Heaven" (song zao shang tian 送灶上天), like Shen Bang's 沈榜 (1540-1597) Yuanshu zaji 宛署雜記, Liu Tong's 劉侗 Dijing jingwu lüe 帝京景物略 (1593-1637), Tian Rucheng's 田汝成 (1503-1557) Xichao leshi 熙朝樂事, or Yu Minzhong's 于敏中 (1714-1779) Rixia jiuwen kao 日下舊聞考. The day was also called "Festival of sacrifices to the Kitchen God" (jizaojie 祀灶節), "day of sending the spirit" (songshenri 送神日), lesser year (xiaonian 小年, xiaosui 小歲 - the Spring Festival chunjie 春節 being the "greater year" danian 大年), "festival of the lesser year" (xiaonianjie 小年節), "eve of the lesser year" (xiaonianye 小年夜) or change of the years (jiaonian 交年). In various parts of China, the offerings differ, as well as additional customs like sweeping the courtyard.

Common objects presented to the Kitchen God were sweet cakes, millet cakes, dates, chestnuts, abricots, bean paste, or various soups. The Song-period poet Fan Chengda 范成大 (1126-1193) wrote 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 God returns on New Year's Eve or on the New Year's Day. He is received in a ceremony as the "new kitchen god" (xinzao 新灶). In some regions the old sacrificial day in summer transformed into the birthday of the Kitchen God. It is celebrated on the 3rd day of the 8th lunar month.

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December 22, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail