Ancient and modern
   
 
Observing Minor New Year

The twenty-third of the last month was an exciting day before the New Year. In the past, each family would make offerings to the Kitchen God and light fire crackers on this day, as if rehearing for New Year’s Eve. Because of that, the day was called Minor New Year.

The custom of making offerings to the Kitchen God has a very long history, being one of the ‘five sacrificial ceremonies’ in the Zhou Dynasty (over 2,000 years ago). As recorded in Analects, Prince Jia, a senior minister from the state of Wei, asked Confucius, ‘Why do people say that “it will be more useful to make offerings to the Kitchen God than to Ao?”’ Ao was the name for the southwest corner of a house, where there was a god, who would receive offerings together with the Kitchen God. Jia was actually asking Confucius if one could simply make offerings to the Kitchen God alone. Confucius answered, ‘No, you cannot do so, because if you offend the Heaven by cheating, there would be nothing left for you to pray to.’

There were different opinions about who the Kitchen God was. According to Zhuang Zi, ‘the Kitchen God wears a bun.’ As annotated by Sima Biao, ‘the Kitchen God is a beauty in red wearing a bun.’ In other ancient books, the Kitchen God is said to be Emperor Yan, or Zhu Rong (a descendant of Emperor Yan) or Yellow Emperor. Later the god came to have specific names, being called Song Wuji in the Han Dynasty, Su Jili in the Southern Dynasties, and Zhang Dan or Zhang Ziguo in the Tang Dynasty. The name Zhang Ziguo became popular among the people, and was used in ‘the Kitchen God Sutra’ in the late Qing Dynasty and the early Republican Period.

 

Legend has it that the Kitchen God was a heavenly official sent by Jade Emperor to collect news about the world. On the twenty-third of the last lunar month, he would go back to Heaven on horseback and report to the celestial court the good and bad things that happened in the household he had been staying, and the family’s luck would be decided on the basis of his report. People made offerings to the god so that he would only report good things. As described in an old Beijing ballad, a square table would be put before the kitchen range, with many paper silver ingots hung on both sides and hot tea, cold water, fodder, sugared sunflower seeds and sugared cakes on it. The head of the family would kneel down, incense in hand, praying not for wealth or comfort, but for the god to speak well of the family and hold back bad things.

 

The fodder and the cold water were for the god’s horse. The most important offerings, however, were sugar melons. The best sugar melons were transported from Northeast China, which were called Guandong sugar. Heated malt sugar would be shaped into melons before it cooled down, which would be cut into pieces, melted and applied to the mouth of Kitchen God in his portrait. That would give him a ‘sweet tongue’.

Despite the saying that women should not make offering to the Kitchen God, they actually did so after the male members of the family. When the rite was over, the family would share the remaining sugar melons. In the imperial palace, sugar melons were also used. As Emperor Jiaqing wrote in a poem, Mongolian gazelles were offered to the god. However, far from enjoying such delicacies, ordinary families would worry about their creditors, who would redouble their pressure on the twenty-third of the twelfth month. Insolvent men would try their best to avoid their creditors. As an Old Beijing saying goes, ‘La Ba porridge sends the message (that creditors would come), Guandong sugar worries you to death, and jiaozi saves your life.’ Jiaozi was made on New Year’s Eve, when it was customary from creditors to refrain from claiming their money.

(by Zhu Kai)