Farewell to the Stove God

Nicholas Quirke was delving deeper into Chinese Mythology and tackling another tradition of the advancing New Year on 4 February 2021 or more precisely, in the lunar calendar 23 December, of honouring the stove god Zhang Lang. He is the most important of a multitude of Chinese domestic gods that protect the hearth and family. It is believed that just before Chinese New Year, the God returns to Heaven to report the activities of every household over the past year to Yu Huang Da Di, The Jade Emperor, emperor of the heavens, who either rewards or punishes a family based on the gods yearly report. The story dates back to around the 2nd Century BC. Zao Jun was a mortal man whose name was Zhang Lang. He was married to a virtuous woman, but fell in love with a younger woman. He left his wife and, as punishment for this adultery the heavens afflicted him with ill-fortune. He became blind, his young lover abandoned him as he resorted to begging to support himself. While begging he encountered the house of his ex-wife. Being blind, he did not recognise her but she took pity on him and invited him in. She cooked a fabulous meal and tended to him lovingly; he then related his story to her. As he shared his story, Zhang Lang became overwhelmed with self-pity and the pain of his error and began to weep. Upon hearing him apologize, Zhang’s former wife told him to open his eyes and his vision was restored. Recognizing the wife he had abandoned, Zhang felt such shame that he threw himself into the kitchen hearth. His ex-wife tried to save him, but all she managed to salvage was one of his legs. Thus Zao Jun’s association with the stove in Chinese homes. To this day, a fire poker is sometimes referred to as “Zhang Lang’s Leg”. The tradition is that a paper effigy of Zao Jun and his wife (who writes down everything that is said in the household over the year for her husband’s report to Jade Emperor) reside in the kitchen. Offerings of food and incense are made to Zao Jun marking his return to Heaven to give his New Year’s report to the Jade Emperor. The lips of Zao Jun’s paper effigy are smeared with honey to sweeten his words to Yu Huang, or to keep his lips stuck together. After this, the effigy will be burnt and replaced by a new one on New Year’s Day. The “Kitchen God festival” is also known as “Little New Year” and in order to establish a fresh beginning, families must also organised and the custom of a thorough house cleaning is another popular pursuit during It was a fortuitous coincidence that “Xiaonian” fell on a Wednesday which, was his weekly apartment cleaning day enabling him to participate in all practices. He had another online lesson in the afternoon which meant that he remained indoors for most of the day, using the treadmill for exercise and only a foray to the gate to collect parcels serving as time outdoors. He was concerned that his lack of fresh air might hamper his sleep but focussing for two engrossing hours on ‘The Little Things’ was exhausting and he slept without problem.

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