Saying Goodbye to The Kitchen God

The day after Trump’s inauguration, I was in Tokyo doing some food ‘research’ on route back from my pop up dinner in Niseko. An American friend of mine Elizabeth, who had moved there a couple years back, invited me to join her and some others on a march at Hibiya Park, one of the 676 sister marches planned around the globe in alliance with the Women’s March on Washington. About 650 of us, mostly expats, traversed the city in a respectful, quiet and distinctly Japanese fashion, in a neat double file to the side of traffic on the road.  Later that night, I returned to my Airbnb in Shibuya and watched as Gloria Steinem declared that “God may be in the details, but the goddess is in connections” while 19 year old Nina Donovan’s visceral words wrenched hearts and minds. I stayed up late into the night, unwilling to close my tired eyes so as not to miss a moment of history. I cried constantly. It never felt better to cry.

I thought about China, missing from the list of 81 countries where peaceful marches took place. Nothing like this could ever take place here of course, regardless of the cause. But would a women’s march even resonate in China? In the last couple decades, it seems that Chinese women’s status in society has improved by leaps and bounds. Women here have higher education levels and salaries than ever before, and despite the best efforts of propagandist organs to stigmatize “leftover women”, or any single, high-achieving woman over the age of 27, we are holding out, choosing to delay marriage to invest in ourselves (some credit due to best-sellers like Joy Chen’s Do Not Marry Before Age 30). But can this really count as a victory for women in an established patriarchal system?

All thoughts on political activism left my brain as soon as I returned to Shanghai. It was the start of Chinese New Year (which begins with homeward migrations around mid January and doesn’t fully end until Feb 11th with the Lantern Festival) and there was plenty of binge eating and drinking to do. It’s my favorite time to be in Shanghai, the whole city shuts down, streets empty out and there is glorious peace and quiet for a few short days. I spent my time planning business goals for Fly by Jing in the new year (more on that later), and sometimes entire days in bed reading.

One of the things I was curious to read up on was the evolution of Chinese New Year traditions. I grew up with my parents outside of China, and would visit our extended family in Chengdu only during the summers when I had longer holidays. I had no siblings even though my parents weren’t bound to the one-child policy abroad, and as it was just the three of us and we saw each other all the time, we didn’t uphold elaborate CNY traditions, or any traditions for that matter.  So it wasn’t until my mid-20s after I moved to Asia and spent my first Chinese New Year with my extended family, that I realized the extent of my losses, missing out on windfalls of red pocket money over the years.

Aside from the commonly known traditions of visiting family, eating lucky foods (fish, rice cakes, longevity noodles, dumplings, etc), cleaning one’s house before the New Year and lighting fire crackers to ward away bad luck,  there are a few lesser known traditions that can still be found in rural China but are less and less common in urban centers like Shanghai. One of these is fermenting flour, or making a sourdough starter on the 28th of the 12th lunar month in order to steam enough buns the next day in preparation for the new year, as it was considered unlucky to steam buns in the first five days of the 1st month of the year.  These days, who steams their own buns? Let alone make your own sourdough starter when you can just throw in some yeast and call it a day.

Another interesting food related custom was the practice of offering sacrifices to the Kitchen God on the 23rd of the 12th lunar month sending him off to the Jade Emperor, and then welcoming him back again on the fourth day of the new year. Intrigued, I delved down a rabbit hole of scholarly articles on the origins and lore of the Kitchen God, or Zhaoshen (God of the Stove). The story goes something like this:

Zhang Lang was married to a hardworking wife named Guo. Because of her hard work, his farm thrived, but despite this, Zhang was not content. One day he brought home a concubine called Lady Li and ordered his wife to serve her. Lady Li eventually drove Guo away so she and Zhang could live in perfect bliss.  Over time, the farm went downhill and Zhang’s good luck began to disappear.  Lady Li ran off with another man.  Now destitute, Zhang went from household to household asking for food, until one day he collapsed and fainted from hunger.  When he came to, he was lying in a kitchen and was told by a woman tending him that a wonderful woman who would help anyone, had brought him here. This wonderful woman walked into the kitchen, and Zhang was horrified to see that it was his former wife, Guo.  In shame, he tried to find somewhere to hide, but could only find the kitchen fire, so jumped into it and perished.  In heaven, the Jade Emperor, hearing of Zhang’s story exclaimed that because Zhang “had the courage to admit that he was wrong”, he would become the Kitchen God.  His new job would be to report back to the emperor each year, revealing the names of those who deserved good luck because of their generosity and those who deserved bad luck owing to their greed. (Summarized by Patricia Bjaaland Welch from Amy Tan’s popular novel The Kitchen God’s Wife)

On the 23rd of the lunar year, pictures of Zhaoshen, dressed in the robes of a bureaucrat and sitting next to his two wives, are burned to send him up with the smoke on his heavenly journey. Offerings of candy, sticky rice and wine are made, while his lips are smeared with honey to sweeten his report to the Jade Emperor. Curiously, women were not allowed to participate in this ritual; a Chinese saying goes, “Men do not worship the moon and women do not pray to the stove god.” It’s worth noting that the Stove God is commonly regarded as the “ruler” of the family, which might explain why women were ruled out.  This isn’t just a symbolic imbalance of power either. Since the beginning of the productive era, social divisions of labor placed women firmly inside of the hearth and home while men roamed outside, shifting the centre of dominance in production activity and hence lineage, to the man (yes, there was a time when China was a matriarchal society!) On a basic level, male reproductive strategies are more effective when they can control the reproductive capacities of females, and since they’re physically stronger, they usually manage to do so. Then as institutions for property developed, these patrilineal societies began to be organized around the primary function of transferring property from generation to generation, that is, from male to male.

In fact, it wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty that it appeared that women had a slight resurgence of rights, as more property was transferred to women than at any previous time in Chinese history, giving them an unprecedented level economic independence. This came to an abrupt halt at the end of the Song dynasty however, when a revival of Confucianism led to a turn back to patriarchal principles, where according to Mencius, “a woman has to be subordinate to her father in her youth, her husband in maturity, and her son in old age”. It’s no coincidence that this is the same period that gave rise to the horrific practice of foot binding, literally breaking the bones in a woman’s foot and confining her permanently to the indoors, what you might call a self-imposed mechanism for women to survive within a harshly patriarchal system.

But surely foot binding and slavery of women is a thing of the past right? Doesn’t China have the highest number of self-made billionaire women in the world? These might be true, but according to the findings of Leta Hong Fincher in her insightful book “Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality In China”, things aren’t as rosy as they appear.  In fact, in areas of property ownership, a strong indicator of marital power balance, we might be doing worse than we were a thousand years ago.  She cites a 2010 national survey conducted by the Women’s Federation showing that only one out of fifteen single women in China owned a home in their own name, and a 2012 study showing that men’s names were on the deeds of 80% of marital homes while only 30% of women’s were, stating in effect that “Chinese women have been been shut out of arguably the biggest accumulation of residential real-estate wealth in history, worth more than US$30 trillion in 2013.”

So what does all this have to do with the Kitchen God? Well it is just slightly amusing that a man of questionable morality who jumps into a flame to escape his own shame would be rewarded with godly status, presiding over the home and policing the actions of its inhabitants. Ironically, the person who spends the most time in the home yet holds no ownership claim to it, and who he presumably is really keeping an eye on, is the woman. The Kitchen God is hardly the last bastion of the Chinese patriarchy and we still have a long march ahead of us, but this is one tradition that I’m happy is firmly ensconced in the past.

Photo Credit: Grace Young Chinese New Year
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Photo Credit: Grace Young Chinese New Year
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