The Kitchen God, also sometimes known as the Stove God, is common to Chinese Folk Religion and Daoism. He goes by several other names; Zao Jun, Zao Shen and Zhang Lang are among his aliases.
Besides having multiple names, he has more than one origin story, but we’ll get to that in a bit. First things first: what exactly does a Kitchen God do?
Yearly, on the twenty third day of the twelfth lunar month, the Kitchen God gives an account of every family’s activity to the Jade Emperor, who either blesses or curses their household. The Kitchen God’s wife acts as his scribe.
It isn’t uncommon for practitioners to keep a paper effigy of the Kitchen God and his wife over their fireplaces; as Report Day approaches, the effigies’ lips are covered with honey, either to sweeten the report, or to keep their lips sealed; afterwards, the effigies are burned, replaced by new ones on the following Chinese New Year.
That, in a nutshell, is the cosmological function of the Kitchen God: connecting home, hearth and the heavens.
So how exactly did the Kitchen God come to be?
Once upon a time, there was a mortal man named Zhang Lang. He had a caring, devoted wife; however, Zhang Lang feel in love with a younger woman.
He abandoned his wife to be with his new paramour, and the Heavens were displeased. As a punishment, Zhang Lang lost his sight, and his young lover left him. Blind and broken, Zhang Lang took to begging.
While wandering through the village, he stumbled upon his old home. Lacking vision, he didn’t recognize his wife; luckily for Zhang Land, she was a kindhearted soul, and took him in.
She cooked him a sumptuous meal, which he devoured. He then started sharing his story; as he did, he was overcome with grief and remorse. Sobbing, he told her how he only wished he could apologize to his wife.
Moved by his sincerity, she commanded:
“Open your eyes.”
And he did.
And he saw.
And on seeing his ever-faithful wife…
He threw himself, out of shame, into the still burning fireplace.
His wife tried to save him, but all she was able to rescue was one of his legs…
She commemorated her dead husband with a shrine over their fireplace, and so the custom of hanging a picture of the Kitchen God began.
Now, here’s the kicker:
Normally, the punishment for suicide is being transformed into a Hopping Corpse.
A Hopping Corpse, you ask?
Yes, a Hopping Corpse.
So, let’s talk about them for a minute…
A jiangshi is a hopping vampire/corpse, a stiff reanimated body that lives off the qi (the life-force) of the living. They often wear late Imperial garments, and they tend to stalk their prey at night, sleeping during the day in coffins or other dark places.
While jiangshi can be conjured up via the dark arts, they can also be the result of unnatural deaths – including suicide.
So, what do you do if you cross paths with a Hopping Corpse?
According to Li Shizen’s medical treatise Bencao Gangmu (1578), mirrors are potent alchemical weapons against Jiangshi.
The Jingchu Suishiji (an early 7th century calendar book) recommends peaches, as they hold the essence of the Five Elements.
Yuan Mei, writing in the 17th century, had a few thoughts on dealing with the Hopping Dead:
- The sound of a rooster, signifying as it does the rising sun (also good for destroying the Cockatrice)
- Fire: “When set on fire, the sound of crackling flames, blood rushes forth and bones cry.”
- And my personal favorite: Acupuncture. Apparently, you need to nail seven Chinese date (jujbee) seeds at meridian points along the Jiangshi’s spine.
Incidentally, Yuan Mei’s masterpiece on all things supernatural, Zi Bu Yu, translates to “What the Master Would Not Discuss.” The title is a riff on Confucius, who is quoted in The Analects as saying: “Confucius did not speak of strange events, violence, riots and supernatural things.”
Vampire Qi Zombie? Definitely on the list of what the Master Would Not Discuss…
Luckily for Zhang Lang, a.k.a. the Kitchen God, his suicide was forgiven, and he did not come back as a Hopping Corpse.
Maybe it was his contrition; maybe it was his wife’s devotion. Either way, they were both blessed and led into the Heavenly Court of the Jade Emperor.
While Mao’s Cultural Revolution attempted to purge folk beliefs and religion, it didn’t succeed…which is to say:
The Kitchen God is still watching.
The Jade Emperor is still listening.
The Jiangshi are still hungry.
And Confucious is still annoyed…