Saturday, February 24, 2007

Lunar New Year

By Uncle Cheng

Of all Chinese festivals the lunar new year festival is obviously the most extensively celebrated. This is despite the familiar Chinese saying that the winter solstice is the most important event in the Chinese calendar. The fact is that the new year festivities are what we look forward to rather than the winter solstice.

Allow me to share with you some thoughts on another festival drawn from my memories of distant childhood days in Malaysia.

As we all know the Chinese new year customarily lasts for fifteen days but today, on the 24th day of the 12th moon we pay homage to the kitchen god. Worship of the kitchen god has always intrigued me because from my earliest recollections in Malaysia I recall that sacrifices had to be made to the kitchen god today.

As I grew up I learnt more about the historical background of the kitchen god, which has great historic ancestry in Chinese custom dating back to well before the arrival of Confucianism and Buddhism. Indeed, the kitchen god can be traced back into Chinese antiquity and the very early days when people practised a superstitious religion called “animism”.

The kitchen god was a much respected and very popular god, which may explain his staying power through the centuries. He was given the friendly title “prince of the oven” (tsao wang) because he was identified with the inventor of fire. And fire of course was heaven’s greatest gift to mankind, especially because fire enabled food to be cooked. It was not long before tsao wang came to personify the domestic home.

Even to this day cooking and the kitchen are absolutely essential ingredients of Chinese culture and our belief system. Of course food is an important aspect of the cultures of many other civilisations, such as the French and the Indian, but somehow for we Chinese is much more than culture — it is part of our very existence and system of beliefs. For example during the Han dynasty the emperors used to offer the kitchen god sumptuous sacrificial devotions.

Since early days belief in the kitchen god became so embedded in the Chinese psyche that the Taoists and the Buddhists readily adopted him into their pantheons of gods. The Taoists even created their own myths which gave the kitchen god a human form for the first time. Before long statues of the kitchen god appeared and became the practice to smear the god’s lips so as to ensure that he would not make any adverse reports to heaven.

So it is that I clearly recall in Malaysia we would keep our home’s kitchen god meticulously clean on his festival. On that auspicious day knives could not be sharpened, brooms stored away and sweet offerings were made to the god of such things as melons, cakes, fruits, sticky rice, and always honey. It was with the honey that the god’s lips were smeared so that he would not talk too freely in the heavenly world and to ensure that his words would be sweet and flattering. Our hope was that he would therefore promote the good deeds of our family and forget our shortcomings.

As a child I was told that in southern China in the nineteenth century some families habitually used opium as a substitute for sugar to make the kitchen god drowsy and so ensure that when he appeared before the jade emperor he would be suitably good-humoured and tolerant. The British, who introduced opium to China, inadvertently altered this Chinese tradition!

At our home when all the offerings to the kitchen god had been made, the ritual bowing had been performed and all our prayers had been recited, a paper image of the kitchen god was set on fire so that he was sent skywards in a chariot of fire to heaven. Preparations for the lunar new year itself could only be started once the kitchen god had been ceremoniously and contentedly dispatched on his heavenly way.

Therefore dear readers it is my earnest wish that the kitchen god this year will send good messages to the jade emperor on your behalf and I wish to you all a happy and prosperous new year.

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