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Zaoshen (灶神; “stove deity”) is a humble figure in Chinese culture and folk religion. Although often known as “the kitchen god,” the deity has no direct connection to the act of cooking or the mastery of culinary arts. This misconception largely stems from a conflation between the kitchen, a place where food is prepared, and the hearth, a place where a fire is or was traditionally kept for heating and cooking in homes. Since the hearth represents the central communal space for the family, Zaoshen is thus regarded as the guardian angel of the home.
Zaoshen is a mysterious yet recognisable figure in Chinese culture. While there does not seem to be a definitive story to how the hearth deity came to be worshipped and respected, Zaoshen is a recognisable name in many Chinese households since the Han dynasty. Whilst historians and the worshipping public cannot agree on one tale of origin for the hearth deity, the following seem to be the most frequently recounted.
There are two versions of this story, which make up two of the most common tales of Zaoshen recounted through oral traditions. The first concerns a mortal man named Zhang Dan (張單). Although a married man, Zhang Dan became infatuated with a younger woman and decided to abandon his wife to be with her. Heaven (天; tin1; “sky” and also “heaven” in certain contexts) dealt Zhang his punishment for being thoughtless and cruel, and he was struck with blindness. Consequently, the young girl left his side and Zhang resorted to begging on the streets to support himself.
One day, Zhang unknowingly stumbled across the home of his former wife while begging for alms. Seeing the state her former husband was in, the kind woman took him in, tended to his needs, and prepared his favourite dish for him. Zhang was overcome with pain and regret at his actions as he took bites from the dish that reminded him of his former wife and confessed to his errors tearfully. Upon hearing his genuine apology, the woman urged Zhang to open his eyes, and the man realised his vision had been miraculously restored.
When Zhang realised the woman helping him was his former wife, he was overwhelmed with shame and threw himself into the kitchen hearth, not realising it was lit. The woman tried to save him from the fire, but Zhang was consumed by the flames. In memory of her former lover, the woman created a shrine right above the fireplace, which she would tend to regularly with offerings.
The second concerns a mortal man with the same last name but called Zhou (張宙). Zhang Zhou gambled away his fortune. He spent all his money on women and was forced to sell his wife to another man to survive. Not learning from his missteps, Zhang continued his frivolous lifestyle and became a beggar when money ran out once again.
One day, Zhang came across the house of his former wife and was invited in by the woman. She tended to her former husband and cooked for him, when suddenly her present husband returned home and ordered her to boil water. Zhang did not want her present husband to think she was having an affair with him, so he decided to sacrifice himself by running into the lit hearth.
When Zhang’s former wife set up a shrine above the fireplace and regularly paid her respects afterwards, she was questioned by her present husband. In a panic, she replied that since people live by cooking on the hearth, if they didn’t pay respects to the god of the hearth, they would be condemned.
Both stories led to the association between Zaoshen and the hearth for many. As to Zhang Dan’s and Zhang Zhou’s ascensions into heavenly ranks, it is believed that the Jade Emperor took pity on the man in each story and allowed them to be reunited with their loved ones as a hearth deity at the shrine which their former wives tended to.
Although commonly believed to be and depicted as a man together with his wife, a few historical accounts have skewed this perception of Zaoshen by suggesting that the deity is a woman. As recorded in Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi’s namesake volume as well as several prominent Taoist texts, Zaoshen is an old woman living on the Kunlun Mountain Range (崑崙山; kwan1 leon4 saan1; representative of the border between the centre of the world and divinity in Chinese mythology), dubbed 崑崙老母 (kwan1 leon4 lou5 mou5; literally “Kunlun old mother”), 雲種火老母 (wan4 zung2 fo2 lou5 mou5; literally “cloud flame old mother”), and 種火老母元君 (zung2 fo2 lou5 mou5 jyun4 gwan1; literally “flame old mother yun gwan”, “yun gwan” being a Taoist title for immortals).
Although described as a benevolent grandmother, she is an incredibly powerful Taoist immortal or deity in charge of food and drink in the mortal realm, is all-seeing, and can control the fortune, misfortune, life, and death of a family.
Amongst the popular oral traditions surrounding Zaoshen is a story about the first sacrifice to the hearth deity. Here, Heaven grants a daoshi (道士; dou6 si6; scholar of the Tao) eternal youth and rids him of the need for sustenance. Arrogant and boastful due to his recent fortunes, the daoshi called upon Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty claiming that he can grant the emperor what Heaven had given him if he offered sacrifices to Zaoshen.
Skeptical about the daoshi’s claims, the emperor decided against the sacrifices at first, until he was visited in a dream by a god vouching for the daoshi’s credibility. Hoping to achieve immortality, the emperor decided to offer sacrifices to the hearth deity. When the daoshi’s promises inevitably falls through, the emperor punished the daoshi for his arrogance and for wasting his time by executing him.
Despite the negative story linked to this first sacrifice to Zaoshen, many saw the emperor’s act as an important milestone in ancient religion and followed suit. Since then, offerings to the hearth deity became increasingly common in Chinese households.
Zaoshen has multiple roles as a deity. He is regarded as one of the five domestic gods of the home that protects the family from misfortune. Zaoshen has the power to ward off evil spirits, as alluded to in a folk saying, “灶灰瞇鬼眼,” meaning “ash from the hearth will blind the eyes of ghosts.”
Zaoshen is also an inspector of common misdeeds in the family. Legend has it, the hearth deity will leave the home and travel to Heaven at the end of the lunar year, where Zaoshen will give a report to the Jade Emperor—who is not unlike Santa in this instance—about the goods and evils of the household. This is why people usually pay respects to Zaoshen before Lunar New Year in hopes that the deity will say something good about their family in return.
Although Zaoshen has no direct connection to cooking, their association with the kitchen is not founded on hollow grounds. A family’s well-being is inevitably linked to having enough food on the table to keep everyone fed, and since Zaoshen is the protector of the home, it is believed that the deity also has power over the influx of food for the family. When times are dire, prayers are offered to the deity for fortune and wealth; when times are prosperous, offerings and prayers are given to thank Zaoshen for watching over the family.
In Minnan and Taiwan, Zaoshen is often depicted on a printed or painted likeness of a pantheon of five household gods behind the ancestral shrine in the home and is worshipped alongside other gods and ancestors. Others will set up a shrine for Zaoshen near the stoves in their kitchens, where offerings are made daily. Since Zaoshen is an inspector of good and evil in the home, most families are particularly cautious and respectful to rituals relating to his worship, if a likeness of Zaoshen cannot be obtained, families may opt for replacing this with a red piece of paper with Zaoshen’s name written on it in calligraphy.
In terms of offerings, typical items include meats, sugar cakes, tea and spirits, and fruits. Another practice relates again to Zaoshen’s duty as an inspector, where members of the family will literally “sweeten” his words spoken about the family to the Jade Emperor by rubbing bits of cake, syrup, or sugar over the lips of Zaoshen on the likeness—a practice that has evolved into waving sweets or chocolate over the stove in the kitchen in recent times. For likenesses that depict Zaoshen riding on a horse, some devotees will even prepare offerings of hay or fresh produce such as carrots, potatoes, and cucumbers for the loyal steed.
Daily offerings aside, 祭灶節 (zai3 zou3 zit3; literally “hearth festival”), a festival honouring Zaoshen, commonly takes place between the twenty-third to twenty-fifth day of the twelfth lunar month. Since the festival takes place right before Lunar New Year, it is colloquially referred to as “little Chinese New Year” by many families in the region. During the Hearth Festival, sweet offerings are prioritised.
Whilst most will partake in the Hearth Festival, a smaller portion of devotees will celebrate the return of Zaoshen from Heaven back to their homes. Mainly acknowledged in the south of China and Vietnam, the deity’s return celebration spans a two-day period from Lunar New Year’s Eve to Lunar New Year’s Day, where offerings to Zaoshen are commonly grouped together with those for all domestic gods and ancestors.
Whilst Zaoshen and the associated worshipping rituals are more and more relegated to a fading, old age amongst modern Chinese households in Hong Kong, offerings are still given to the household gods that Zaoshen is a part of before and during Lunar New Year celebrations.