When people in China pray to the god of the household, it’s to the kitchen god, Zao-jun, which literally translates into ‘stove spirit’ or ‘stove god.’ Of all the Chinese mythological domestic gods, he’s one of the most important. Zao-jun is a god that protects the hearth and family.
It is thought that on the twenty third day of the twelfth lunar month, he reports the year’s activities of every household to the Jade Emperor (Yu Huang). Zao-jun returns to Heaven to make his report, just before the Chinese New Year. The Jade Emperor (the emperor of the heavens) either punishes, or gives rewards to a family, based on what Zao Jun reports.
Stories involving the kitchen god date back to the 2nd century BC. He was originally a mortal, named Zhang Lang. He married a virtuous woman, however, he ended up falling in love with a younger woman, and then left his wife for her. The adulterous act led to personal punishment and bad fortune. He went blind, and his young lover left him. His condition forced him to beg to support himself.
One day, while he was begging for change, he came to the home of his former wife. She took pity on him. She invited him inside, cooked him a delicious meal and tended to him with love. He opened up and shared his story with her. Recognizing the error of his ways, he started to cry and said how sorry he was. She told him to open his eyes, and that his vision would be restored.
He did, and when he saw that it was her, he was overtaken with shame and threw his body into the kitchen fire. He didn’t know it was lit and was set ablaze. His ex-wife tried to save him, but only managed to save one of his legs. She then created a shrine to him above her fireplace.
This is how Zao Jun became associated with stoves in Chinese homes. To this day, some people call a fire poker “Zhang Lang’s Leg”, and it’s a Chinese tradition to place a paper effigy, or a plaque of the couple, above the fireplace in the kitchen.