According to Chinese popular religion, there are three domains in the cosmos — Heaven, Earth, and the Underworld — and each domain is populated by a host of important gods and goddesses. The Earthly Domain is quite crowded, with ordinary people as well as a great assortment of deities that interact with people in a variety of ways.
One of the most important deities of the Earthly Domain was the Kitchen God (or Zao Jun, also known as the Hearth God or the Stove God). Every family had its own Kitchen God, who was considered to be that particular family’s guardian. The Kitchen God was an important intermediary between a family and other important gods.
The Kitchen God was sometimes referred to as the Stove God, and this points to the importance of this god to family life, as the stove was thought to represent the unity of the family. In late-imperial China there was a process known as “family division,” in which two brothers who were both married and had children could decide that they can no longer live together practically as one family and want to split up into two families. When this happened, at least one of the brothers had to dedicate a new Kitchen God, for two families could not share one Kitchen God.
The Kitchen God was often represented with his wife, or, as shown in the image at right, with his two wives. Paper images such as these had a special place above the family’s stove. It was widely held that once a year, just before the Lunar New Year, the Kitchen God went to Heaven to report to the Jade Emperor on his family’s activities during the year. The family “sent” its Kitchen God to Heaven to make his report by burning the paper image that had hung over their stove for the entire year. But in order to ensure a good report before the Jade Emperor, a bit of honey would first be rubbed on the lips of the paper god, so that he would have only sweet things to say to the Jade Emperor (or so that the sticky honey would prevent him from opening his mouth, and no bad news would get out).
Another important deity of the Earthly Domain was the Earth God (or Tudi Gong). The Earth God was a local protective deity and a subordinate of the City God (see below). Every village had its own Earth God, every neighborhood had its own Earth God, and many families had their own Earth God as well.
Unlike the major gods and goddesses found in the village temples, such as Mazu or Guan Yu, each village’s Earth God was a separate entity. That is, Mazu was worshipped at many different village temples, but she was understood to be one goddess who resides in Heaven at the Court of the Jade Emperor. Each village, on the other hand, had its own Earth God who was different from the next village’s Earth God. The two gods were not emanations of one Earth God in Heaven. Rather, Earth Gods were thought to live amongst and interact with human beings.
Earth Gods, like Kitchen Gods, were often represented as a married couple, reinforcing the notion that these gods of the Earthly Domain were very close to human beings, both in terms of proximity and life patterns.
Every major city had a City God (or Chenghuang Ye, “Lord of the Wall and Moat”) appointed by the imperial government, and by government statute every administrative seat had a City God temple. Like his subordinate the Earth God, each City God was a unique entity, and every city had a different City God.
Popularly considered the human magistrate’s supernatural or divine counterpart, the City God was as an important religious link between state and society. The state encouraged the belief of most people that the City God occupied an important position in a pantheon of gods organized in a supernatural hierarchy paralleling that of the imperial government. A City God was usually considered to be the reincarnation of a human being who had been an official in earlier times.
The City God was thought to change every three years, just as a living magistrate would change office every three years. Both the magistrate and the god held sway over the same administrative area — the magistrate attending to this-worldly affairs and the City God to the supernatural. The magistrate, depending on one’s interpretation, either paid formal reverence to the City God or worshipped him, and was expected to appeal to the City God for supernatural assistance during droughts, floods, or other crises beyond direct human control. Among other duties the City God had the responsibility of dispatching the souls of the dead in his district to the Underworld realm.
One of the most spectacular annual events in both rural and urban China was the City God’s “birthday,” which would draw tens of thousands of people in a procession that would march through the city that was his jurisdiction. [More on the worship of the City God in popular and official religion...]