The Kitchen God and tra­di­tional stove art

Shanghai Daily - - FRONT PAGE - Zhu Ying

In about two weeks, Chong­ming Is­land res­i­dent Tang Jingda, 59, will pre­pare of­fer­ings for the Kitchen God, whose pic­ture stuck on a board placed on his za­o­tou, or tra­di­tional Chi­nese cook­ing stove.

Ac­cord­ing to Tang, for­mer pres­i­dent of Shang­hai Chong­ming Stove Cul­ture Re­search So­ci­ety, the Kitchen God re­turns to the heaven and gives an an­nual re­port on ev­ery house­hold to the Jade Em­peror on the 23rd or 24th day of the 12th lu­nar month. Peo­ple burn pic­tures of the de­ity on that day, sym­bol­iz­ing his re­turn to heaven.

Based on the Kitchen God’s re­port, the em­peror ei­ther re­wards or pun­ishes fam­i­lies in the com­ing year. On Chi­nese New Year’s Eve, which falls on Fe­bru­ary 4 this year, peo­ple will place new pic­tures of the Kitchen God on their stoves to wel­come him back from heaven.

“Those who can af­ford it build a shrine for the statue of the Kitchen God and place it on the stove,” said Tang.

In Chi­nese mythol­ogy, the Kitchen God is an im­por­tant de­ity, who pro­tects the hearth and fam­ily.

“With hous­ing ren­o­va­tions since 2000, most fam­i­lies have aban­doned the za­o­tou, which oc­cu­pies a lot of kitchen space,” said Tang. “Some, how­ever, still place a pic­ture of the Kitchen God next to their gas stoves.”

Of­fer­ings to the Kitchen God are cakes, sweets and fruits. Peo­ple hope the de­ity will have good things to say about them after eat­ing sweet of­fer­ings.

It is said that some peo­ple spread sugar over the mouth of the Kitchen God’s pic­ture to sweeten his re­port, while oth­ers touch up the photo with liquor, try­ing to make the god tipsy and cloud his mem­ory of mis­deeds.

“When my house was ren­o­vated, I told my chil­dren that I must keep the za­o­tou,” Tang said. “It is a tra­di­tion, and food cooked on the za­o­tou tastes bet­ter. Braised pork knuckle in brown sauce cooked in the tra­di­tional way, for ex­am­ple, is much more ten­der. And be­sides, tra­di­tional stoves ac­com­mo­date larger woks.”

With a history go­ing back more than 800 years, the za­o­tou was once a house­hold essen­tial on Chong­ming Is­land.

“The za­o­tou of a sin­gle house­holder was small and sim­ple, with only one burner,” said Huang Han­sheng, 65, an “in­her­i­tor” of the tra­di­tional art of Chong­ming stove mu­rals. “But it is rare now.”

Ac­cord­ing to Huang, most re­main­ing za­o­tou have two burn­ers — one with a 52-cen­time­ter di­am­e­ter and an­other one mea­sur­ing 46 cen­time­ters. For richer fam­i­lies, za­o­tou have a third burner of 57-cen­time­ter di­am­e­ter.

Be­cause of the smoke and ashes cre­ated by burn­ing fire­wood and straw in the stove, clever lo­cals erect a “wall” called za­oshan, or “stove moun­tain,” to separate the cook­ing area from the burn­ing area.

Beau­ti­fy­ing the wall are tra­di­tional mu­rals de­pict­ing aus­pi­cious pat­terns, such as fish, rep­re­sent­ing abun­dance; bam­boo, im­ply­ing longevity and strength; boats, sym­bol­iz­ing plain sail­ing; and other tra­di­tional mo­tifs of plants, an­i­mals, fig­ures and land­scapes.

The mu­rals ex­press the ideal life sought by lo­cals.

“The plain-white za­o­tou with­out dec­o­ra­tion is called tofu zao,” said Tang. “It is be­lieved that tofu zao might of­fend the Kitchen God, so peo­ple draw paint­ings on it.”

Prior to the 1970s, the paint­ings were mainly blackand-white, draw­ing on pig­ments avail­able at the time. Black pig­ment was made from pot ashes, rice wine and wa­ter. A green pig­ment was ex­tracted from grass, while red pig­ment came pri­mar­ily from bricks.

The brushes used in the paint­ings are called xiezhua, or “crab legs.” They are made of lo­cal ma­te­ri­als such as bam­boo roots, reeds and goat hair.

Stove mu­rals, sim­i­lar to fres­coes, are ex­e­cuted on wet lime plas­ter. There­fore, artists need to com­plete a paint­ing in one or two days. As the za­o­tou burns, the paint­ing dries and doesn’t fade for sev­eral decades.

“In re­cent years, crafts­men have re­placed nat­u­ral pig­ments with wa­ter­col­ors,” said Tang. “Many peo­ple now pre­fer to in­stall ce­ramic wall tiles on za­o­tou be­cause they are eas­ier to clean. How­ever, older crafts­men find it hard to paint on tiles. I worry that may af­fect the fu­ture of the folk art.”

He admitted that his stove is more of a house­hold dec­o­ra­tion than a daily ap­pli­ance.

“My wife and I sel­dom use the za­o­tou to cook food nowadays be­cause the prepa­ra­tion work, like cut­ting and burn­ing fire­wood, is too la­bo­ri­ous,” he said.

Huang, who has been do­ing za­o­tou paint­ings for more than 40 years, said many restau­rants themed on ru­ral nos­tal­gia of­ten in­stall “fake” za­o­tou, which use gas as a fuel source.

Al­though za­o­tou are not as pop­u­lar as they once were, Huang is still very busy. Peo­ple from down­town Shang­hai, Suzhou and cities in Zhe­jiang Prov­ince of­ten have za­o­tou in their homes, more as an artis­tic touch than a func­tional part of the house­hold.

To pre­serve the cul­ture of za­o­tou, a themed mu­seum was es­tab­lished in 2012 in the town of Xianghua on Chong­ming Is­land. It dis­plays the history and mythol­ogy of the stoves, along with the dif­fer­ent types of stoves and tra­di­tional Chong­ming cui­sine.

To at­tract more peo­ple to par­tic­i­pate in the grass­roots art, the Chong­ming Zao­hua Art Fes­ti­val is held ev­ery au­tumn. Huang also teaches lo­cal stu­dents the cul­ture of Chong­ming za­o­tou in schools. Ad­dress: 1789 Xianghuagong Rd, Xianghua town Open­ing hours: 8am-11am, 1pm-4pm

Ad­mis­sion: free

Tel: 5944-2927

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