In Chinese mythology, Zao Jun (灶君) is a household folk god who watches over the home and family. Said to reside in the stove or hearth area of a house, it’s believed that Zao Jun annually returns to heaven on the twenty-third day of the twelfth lunar month to report on the status of families to the Jade Emperor (玉皇). Although he is one of the lowest ranking Chinese deities, he is one of the most commonly worshiped gods in the Chinese pantheon. Paper posters or small statues of Zao Jun and his wife can often be found in many Chinese kitchens.
Zào Jūn’s (灶君) title literally translates as “stove master.” He’s also sometimes referred to as Zào Shén (灶神), meaning “stove god”, or Zào Jūn Gōng (灶君公), which means “stove master lord.” Before he became a god, Zao Jun is said to have been a mortal man named Zhāng Dān (張單).
Zao Jun is usually depicted wearing formal, Chinese official-style robes. He sports a long beard and mustache and wears a scholar’s cap on his head. In art, he’s usually drawn or painted alongside his wife and sometimes, even with his young lover.
Zao Jun has no known family besides his wife who is a nameless woman. She is only referred to as “Zao Jun’s wife” in stories and folklore.
Zao Jun has a very unique origin story. Unlike many gods, Zao Jun was actually a sinful, mortal man who achieved godhood through suicide. Despite being one of the lowest ranking gods in the Chinese pantheon, Zao Jun is one of the most important since he serves as a direct interface between humans and the Jade Emperor.
The most popular version of his origin myth states that, before becoming a god, Zao Jun was a mortal man named Zhang Dan (張單). Although Zhang Dan had been happily married to his wife for a number of years, he fell in love with a much younger girl. He left his wife for this new, younger lover. As punishment for his adulterous act, heaven struck Zhang Dan blind and his lover consequently ended up leaving him. Finding himself alone and with no means to support himself, Zhang Dan was reduced to begging for charity.
One day while he was begging, Zhang Dan happened to come upon the house of his former wife, but he didn’t realize it because of his blindness. Seeing her ex-husband in such a miserable state was too much for Zhang Dan’s wife and she was overcome with pity and compassion for her former husband, in spite of the cruel way that he had treated her in the past.
She offered him a bath, she cooked him up his favorite meal, and patiently listened to him while he told her his story. Zhang Dan cried, saying he wished that he could go back to his former wife, to beg for her forgiveness, and tell her how sorry he was.
Upon hearing his apology, his wife told him to open his eyes. Miraculously, Zhang Dan had full use of his vision again and immediately recognized his abandoned wife. He felt so guilty at how kindly she had treated him in light of his ill-treatment of her, that he threw himself into the fireplace and killed himself before she could stop him.
When he woke up, Zhang Dan realized that he hadn’t been transformed into a “hopping ghost” (a common outcome for those who committed suicide) and that he wasn’t in hell either. Rather, Zhang Dan found himself in the court of the Jade Emperor where he was relieved of the karmic weight of his past deeds, given the title of “Stove Master” (灶君), and tasked with the duty of watching over every Chinese household from their hearth. Completely devoted to her husband, Zhang Dan’s wife soon chose to become his scribe and helped him keep records of everything that he saw from his place in the kitchen.
Because of his significance and emphasis on the familial unit in Chinese culture, Zao Jun plays an especially important role in people’s everyday lives. In ancient times, when three generations of one family often lived within the same household, individual nuclear families were defined by their stove. When the father of a family passed away, his sons would then establish their own households. The eldest son would inherit the stove while his younger brothers would take coals from it and introduce them to their own stoves in their new homes. This was their way of inviting Zao Jun to occupy their hearth and recognize their household. Even though this practice is now outdated, it is not uncommon to see posters, statues, or small shrines dedicated to Zao Jun in the modern Chinese kitchen.
Zao Jun also plays an important role during Chinese New Year. During the holiday, families will often buy or make sticky sweets and desserts to “bribe” to Zao Jun. The idea is that the sweets will gummy up his mouth or literally “sweeten” his words, so that the god won’t be able to tell the Jade Emperor all of the unsavory things that he might have seen during the year. Sometimes practitioners will even go so far as to rub honey directly onto the mouth of their statue of Zao Jun. After prayers and offerings are given to him, old posters of the god are burned, his statue is wiped clean, and new posters are put up to signal the beginning of a new year.