In Chinese folk religion and Chinese mythology, the Kitchen God, named Zao Jun 灶君 literally "stove master" or Zao Shen 灶神 literally "stove god" or "stove spirit", is the most important of a plethora of Chinese domestic gods that protect the hearth and family with the addition of being celebrated in Vietnamese culture as well.
On the 24th of the last month in the lunar calendar, families worship the Kitchen God with offerings of homemade sweets, rice cakes, dates, walnuts and fired beans. They also burn fodder as a gesture symbolic of feeding the Kitchen God's horse.
It is believed that the Kitchen God will return to heaven the next day and report to the Jade Emperor all the deeds of each family for the previous year. So they pray to the Kitchen God: "Speak more of the virtues of the family and less of its evil deeds".
The ceremonial part of this celebration is presided over by a man, and, according to a taboo, women are not allowed to view the ceremonies.
Liu Tong & Yu Yizheng (Ming Dynasty): Scenery and Events in the Capital.
It is said that the Kitchen God is in control of a family's fortune and misfortunes. His shrine is located above the kitchen stove. He reports the good and evil people have done to the Jade Emperor on the 23rd of 24th of December of the lunar year. Families usually offer sacrifices to the Kitchen God on that day. At the end of the ceremony the old portrait of the Kitchen God is burnt and a new one put up.
Offering, including sweets made from malt sugar are intended to please the Kitchen God so that he will only talk about the good deeds of the family. People also hope that the sticky sweets will seal the Kitchen God's mouth so that he will tell no tales.
The Story of Zao Jun
Though there are many stories on how Zao Jun became the Kitchen God, the most popular dates back to around the 2nd Century BC. Zao Jun was originally a mortal man living on earth whose name was Zhang Lang. He eventually became married to a virtuous woman, but ended up falling in love with a younger woman. He left his wife to be with this younger woman and, as punishment for this adulterous act, the heavens afflicted him with ill-fortune. He became blind, and his young lover abandoned him, leaving him to resort to begging to support himself.
One day, while begging for alms, he happened across the house of his former wife. Being blind, he did not recognize her. Despite his shoddy treatment of her, she took pity on him, and invited him in. She cooked him 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, not realizing that it was lit. His former wife attempted to save him, but all she managed to salvage was one of his legs.
The devoted woman then created a shrine to her former husband above the fireplace, which began 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".
Alternatively, there is another tale where Zao Jun was a man so poor he was forced to sell his wife. Years later he unwittingly became a servant in the house of her new husband. Taking pity on him she baked him some cakes into which she had hidden money, but he failed to notice this and sold the cakes for a pittance. When he realized what he had done he took his own life in despair. In both stories Heaven takes pity on Zhang Lang's tragic story. Instead of becoming a vampirish Hopping corpse, the usual fate of suicides, he was made the god of the Kitchen, and was reunited with his wife.
The origin of the Kitchen God has different stories behind it just as any historical cultural tradition may. Another possible story of the "Stove God" is believed to have appeared soon after the invention of the brick stove. The Kitchen God was originally believed to have resided in the stove and only later took on human form. During the Han Dynasty, it is believed that a poor farmer named Yin Zifang, was surprised by the Kitchen God who appeared on Lunar New Year as he was cooking his breakfast. Yin Zifang decided to sacrifice his only yellow sheep for the Kitchen God. In doing so, he became rich and decided that every winter he would sacrifice one yellow sheep in order to display his deep gratitude for the Kitchen God.
In the above representation of Xao Chun, we see him and his wife flanked by two servants holding jars in which are stored the the rewards or punishments for the deeds or misdeeds that have occured during the year. Two other servants stand in the foreground:they serve both Tsao Chun and the Jade Emperor and are intermediaries between the heavenly and earthly world.
The Taoist notion of balanced yin and yang energies is symbolized by the rooster and the dog who stand guard on either side of the a jar filled with money and other riches the family hope will come to them in the coming year.