The story of Zao Jun
Zao Jun has been worshiped as a god in China since at least the 2nd century BC. There are several stories as to how he became a god. The most popular is that he was once a mortal man named Zhang Dan and was married to a virtuous woman. However, Zhang Dan fell in love with a young girl and left his wife for her. From that day on he was plagued with bad luck to punish him for his betrayal. He was struck blind, the young girl left him and he had to resort to begging.
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. He began to cry, and as he cried his eyesight was miraculously restored. Recognizing his benefactress as his former wife, he was overcome with shame and threw himself into the kitchen hearth- not realizing that it was lit.
His wife tried to save him, but he was consumed by the fire and all that was left of him was a leg. . His wife lovingly created a shrine to him above the fireplace where he died; this began Zao Jun's association with the stove in Chinese homes.
Alternatively 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 Dan's tragic story. Instead of becoming a vampirish , the usual fate of suicides, he was made the god of the Kitchen, and was reunited with his wife.
Worship and customs
Traditionally every Chinese household would have a paper effigy of Zao Jun and his wife above the fireplace in the kitchen and this tradition is still widely practiced. Offerings of food and incense are made to Zao Jun on his birthday which is said to be the third day of the eighth lunar month and also on the twenty third day of the twelfth lunar month when he returns to Heaven to give his New Year's report, on this day also the lips of Zao Jun's paper effigy may be smeared with honey to sweeten his words to Yu Huang . After this the effigy will be burnt to be replaced by a new one on New Year's day and firecrackers are lit to speed him on his way to heaven. If the household has a statue or a nameplate of Zao Jun it will be taken down and cleaned on this day for the new year.
Zao Jun in literature
Laurence Yep's novel Dragonwings describes the honey ritual, but the book refers to the deity as the Stove King.
Zao Jun's story is interwoven with a feminist spin into the protagonist's story in Amy Tan's novel The Kitchen God's Wife.