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Better Watch Out, Better Not Cry

Preparing your kitchen – and your life – for the New Year

One of the most popular gods in Chinese culture is Zao Jun, the Kitchen God. The story goes that Zao Jun was assigned by the emperor of heaven to watch over families and take note of what they do and how they behave. A paper image or picture of the Kitchen God was hung in a prominent place in the kitchen, typically on an altar near the stove.

Each year during the Chinese New Year, Zao Jun returns to heaven to report on how the family members have behaved. Prior to his departure, the family will offer a sacrifice to the Kitchen God as a form of bribe. They will place a bowl of sticky rice in front of him, believing that if his mouth is full of glutinous rice, he won’t be able to speak about the family. Glutinous rice balls do the same thing. Nian gao candy smeared on the lips of the Kitchen God might also be used to “sweeten” his version of family activities.

After his “bribe,” the family then burns the image of Zao Jun and by doing so sends him to heaven, the smoke symbolic of his journey. Firecrackers speed up the traveling process. Some people offer fake money rather than food while others create a papier-mache horse and carriage to make his journey easier, all of which is burned with his image. Liquor may even be poured over the flames to create a more dramatic exit.

If the family has a statue of Zao Jun rather than paper or his name written in gold on a wooden plaque, it is taken down, cleaned and replaced.

The send-off ceremony is done on the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month. One week later a new picture of the Kitchen God is hung to replace the old one and to provide a moral compass for the family. Their one-week of surveillance-free living comes to an end.