When people prayed to the god of the household, they sent their thoughts to the Kitchen God, Zao-jun, whose name literally translates into ‘stove spirit’ or ‘stove god.’ Out of all the domestic gods associated with Chinese mythology, he is known as one of the most important.
Zao-jun is a god that protects the hearth and family. It is thought that on the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month, Zao-jun reports the activities of every household over the past year to the Jade Emperor (Yu Huang). He returns to Heaven to make his report just before the Chinese New Year. The Jade Emperor (the emperor of the heavens) would either punish or give rewards to a family based on what Zao Jun had reported.
Stories involving the Kitchen God date back to the 2nd century BC. He was originally a mortal who lived on earth under the name of Zhang Lang. He eventually took a wife , becoming married to a virtuous woman. However, he ended up falling in love with a younger woman and left his wife for the other. The adulterous act led to punishment, as the heavens made sure that he had to deal with bad fortune. He lost his sight and his young lover left him. His health condition forced him to beg as a way to support himself.
One day, while he was begging for change, he came across the home of his former wife. Since he was blind, he did not know it was her. He looked disheveled, but she still took pity on him. She invited him inside and cooked him a delicious meal. She tended to him with love. He opened up and shared his story with her. As he told her his story, he started to pity himself as he recognized the error of his ways. He started to cry and apologized. His former wife told him to open his eyes and that his vision would be restored. He did and when he saw that it was his former wife, he was overtaken with shame and threw his body into the kitchen hearth. He did not know that it was lit and he was set afire. His former wife tried to save him, but all that was left was one of his legs.
The woman was truly devoted to her former husband and created a shrine above the fireplace. This is how Zao Jun started to become associated with the stove in Chinese homes. To this day, some people will call a fire poker “Zhang Lang’s Leg”.
This is not the only tale of Zao Jun. One story states that he was a poor man that was forced to sell his wife. As years passed, he unintentionally became a servant in the house of her new husband. His former wife would take pity on him , baking a few cakes where she hid money inside. He did not realize what she had done and sold the cakes for a small amount of money. When he realized what he had done, he was full of despair and took his own life. Instead of becoming a ghost corpse, he was made the god of the Kitchen so that he could be reunited with his wife.
It is a Chinese tradition to place a paper effigy or a plaque of Zao Jun and his wife above the fireplace in the kitchen.