In Asian mythology, just before the Lunar New Year, the kitchen gods would go to Heaven to report to the Heavenly Emperor on his family’s activities during the year. In China, the family “send off” their kitchen god to heaven to make their report by burning the paper in which an image of the paper god was drawn that had hung over their stove for the entire year. The smoke rising to the heavens represents his journey to heaven, while fire crackers are lit to speed up the kitchen god’s travel. To ensure a good report before the Heavenly Emperor, honey would be rubbed on the lips of the paper god so that the kitchen god would have only sweet things to say to the Heavenly Emperor, or so that the sticky honey would prevent him from opening his mouth and tells the Heavenly Emperor any bad news.
Every Vietnamese household has a ceremony named Tet Tao Quan (“Kitchen Gods’ Day”). The women of the family would cook delicacies such as steamed sticky rice or plain porridge, altars would be cleaned and decorated with fresh flowers and fruits, and large bowl of water containing live golden carps is kept aside. The carps will be freed into a pond, lake or river after the worshiping ceremonies are finished. The three kitchen gods can only travel up to the heavens with the help of golden carps, as a carp is believed to be heaven’s animal and is a very good swimmer.
The most popular story of the Chinese kitchen god dates back to the 2nd Century BCE. The kitchen god was once a mortal on earth named Zhang Lang. Zhang Lang married a virtuous woman, but later left her to be with a younger woman. As a punishment for his adultery, the heavens afflicted Zhang Lang with ill-fortune – Zhang Lang became blind and, not long after, his young lover abandoned him. His misfortunes continued until he had to resort to begging to support himself.
One day, when he was begging for alms, Zhang Lang came upon a simple house of his former wife. As he was blind, he did not recognize the woman he betrayed. However, she recognized him, took pity on him and invited him in. She cooked a meal for Zhang Lang and tended to him kindly. As Zhang Lang told her his life’s story, he began to weep remembering his former wife and his treatment of her. Hearing this, Zhang Lang’s former wife gently told him to open his eyes and his vision was restored.
When he could finally make out the woman sitting in front of him, Zhang Lang recognized her as the wife he abandoned. However, it appeared that bad luck followed him to the end of his life, as Zhang Lang felt such shame that he threw himself into the kitchen hearth without realizing that it was lit. Despite the virtuous woman’s best efforts to save her former husband, she could only salvage one of his legs. To this day, a fire poker is sometimes referred to as Zhāng lǎng de tuǐ(“Zhang Lang’s Leg”).
The devoted wife then created a shrine to Zhang Lang above the fireplace. The Heavenly Emperor took pity on Zhang Lang. He gave Zhang Lang a new name Zao Jun (“Stove Master”) and made him the god of the Kitchen. When his faithful former wife died, the couple was finally reunited.
To establish a fresh beginning in the New Year, families in Asia are traditionally organized both within their family unit, in their home, and around their yard to clean. This custom of a thorough house cleaning and yard cleaning is another popular custom relating to the Kitchen Gods stemming from the philosophy that they embody. It is believed that in order for the deities to depart to heaven, the family home and “persons” must be cleansed. This ritual continued until after the ceremony where old decorations are taken down and new posters and decorations are put up for the following Spring Festival.
To further illustrate the relationship of the kitchen and family relationships, to this day traditional Independent Chinese families are classified accordingly to the stove they possess. In circumstances of a divided household, kitchens are shared but never the stove. In the case of a fathers death, the sons would divide their fathers household. The eldest son inherits the stove and the younger brothers transfer the coals from the old stove to their own new stoves to invite the kitchen gods to join their newly formed households. This process is called pun chu (“dividing the stove”) which also indicates the division of the “soul” of the family. As the stove is divided, each family members could then keep a part of their family’s “soul” in their new homes.