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The Kitchen God, or Zao Jun, is one of a pantheon of Chinese household gods. Many Chinese have an effigy of Zao Jun in their kitchens, and Chinese New Year celebrations typically include offerings to him. While Zao Jun comes from Taoist tradition, Buddhists, atheists, and others in China often keep an effigy of the Kitchen God around, and they may make offerings to him during the Chinese New Year celebrations to keep him happy.
According to legend, on the 23rd day of the 12th month, one week before the Lunar New Year, the Kitchen God goes to heaven and reports on the doings of the household to the Jade Emperor, the foremost deity in Taoism. If members of the household have acted poorly over the past year, the Kitchen God will not hesitate to say so, and he will also report on good deeds.
To sweeten the Kitchen God up for his trip to heaven, members of the household make numerous offerings to him, including offerings of honey and sweet sticky cakes. The sweet foods are supposed to sweeten the words of Zao Jun, while the sticky cakes bind his lips closed, so that he cannot report on the household. When it is time for the Kitchen God to go to heaven, the members of the household burn the effigy and set off firecrackers to speed him on his way, before scouring the altar, which will be set up all over again on Chinese New Year.
Throughout the year, people may make periodic offerings of food and incense to the Kitchen God, with the goal of keeping him in good humor. Some families may have paintings, statues, or plaques of Zao Jun, which are cleaned rather than burned when he travels to see the Jade Emperor. Offerings are always made on his birthday, which falls on the third day of the eighth lunar month.
Numerous cultures have some sort of tradition of worshiping hearth and kitchen gods. Chinese reverence for Zao Jun dates to at least the second century BCE, and it may be even older. Several Chinese legends also suggest that Zao Jun was once a real person, although the legends differ about who he was, and how he was elevated to godhood. Some of these legends give Zao Jun a wife, and in some households, an effigy of him may be accompanied by an image of his wife.
@grumpyguppy: That is the same story that I have read about. It is said that he became the protector of the happy family life which is why households place pictures of Zhang above their stoves. Every year, he must report back to heaven on the atmosphere of each household and on how the family members treat each other.
Many people burn incense in his honor. Many honor these traditions only at the New Year, but others keep it going throughout the year. He is depicted as a happy soul who just wants to see harmony in the home.
This is the story that I’ve heard regarding the Kitchen God:
There was once a wealthy farmer named Zhang who had anything a man could ever wish for in his happy home. However, he threw it all away when he had an affair with another woman. He went off with his new lover and supposedly, bad luck followed him everywhere he went from then on. After a while, destitute and hungry, he collapsed on someone’s doorstep and was taken in by a nice lady who cared for him and made sure he was fed.
After Zhang recovered, he realized that this good woman that took him in was the wife that he had treated so badly. He felt so horrible that he threw himself into the fire. His wife desperately tried to douse the flames to no avail. His ashes were said to have floated to heaven where he then became Zao Jun, the Kitchen God.