Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 1, March 12 - 25


Hey Ayi, I had a rotten start to the Year of the Rabbit. My girlfriend dumped me, I crashed my new motorbike's sidecar into an embassy guard post, and I broke my leg. Can you recommend some Chinese gods to pray to who will help me break this spell of bad luck?



Dear Luckless,

Your troubles are at an end. Your ayi is going to teach you about two gods no superstitious feudalist or luckless laowai should be without.

The first thing you want to sort out is some cash to pay for a new sidecar. Credit is not easy to come by, especially in the midst of a financial crisis, but you are lucky enough to be in the only communist nation on earth with a leader famous for declaring: To get rich is glorious. So you won't be surprised to learn that our Chinese spirit realm is a cash economy too. In fact, heaven has an entire Celestial Ministry of Finance whose most senior member is the God of Wealth Cai Shen. Before he became a god, Cai Shen was called Zhao Gongming and was a warrior fighting on the side of King Zhou, the tyrannical last emperor of the Shang dynasty (1700-1100 BC). Zhao had superpowers even before he became a god: he rode a black tiger to war and killed his enemies by hurling pearls that exploded like hand grenades. Zhao was killed by an opposing general in the wars that led to the demise of the Shang dynasty. After a quick deification no red tape in the celestial ministries Zhao was given the top job in the Ministry of Fortune. Incidentally, King Zhou also became a god and the tale is interesting if not instructive. As an emperor, one of his many party tricks was to make slaves swim naked in a lake filled with wine. After he died he became the God of Sodomy. If you're interested you can pray to him at a temple in Weihui, Henan province, but I suggest you spend your spare time petitioning Cai Shen.

Cai Shen's birthday is on the fifth day of the first lunar month. This is just after Spring Festival and provides the devout with yet another excuse for a feast. A curious custom common in the south is to hang live fish over the God of Wealth's altar on this day. The fish are not left there long though: before they feel too uncomfortable they are put back into water and set free in order to spawn and multiply. This is a play on words: yu (fish) is a homophone for yu meaning abundance.

Cai Shen is usually depicted with a ring of cash around the hem of his gown. On his breast is a lotus symbolizing fertility. And in his hand is a mushroom symbolizing longevity. Sometimes he is accompanied by acolytes carrying bowls of cash and golden grass. Keeping Cai Shen happy is easy. Besides observing his birthday, you should put a picture or statue of him in your house. Burn incense and leave offerings of fruit to him: your financial affairs are guaranteed to go more smoothly than the average ITIC's. Now that you've sorted out your cash flow, you've got to keep your belly full and arrange for the gods to be well disposed toward you. The Kitchen God is indispensable. Not only is he responsible for the food that comes off the stove but also for the family unity that the hearth symbolizes. He sits above the stove determining the length of life of each member of the household, influencing their financial affairs and silently noting their vices and virtues. The Kitchen God is naturally the patron of cooks but he also has the unenviable task of leading suicides to the first court of hell.

The Kitchen God is usually called Zao Wang or Zao Wang Ye. You can keep Zao Wang happy by pasting a paper image of him above your stove. Some families place a clay figure of him in a small niche in or above the stove. The most popular tale about Zao Wang's origin is that he was a wayward husband who abandoned his wife for a series of floozies. He went blind because of his evil ways and became a beggar wandering from place to place and living on charity. One day he went to a woman's house and begged a bowl of noodles. The noodles were excellent and he said tearfully to the woman that he had not eaten such good noodles since he was married. The woman magically restored his sight. He was amazed to see that she was his wife. The story goes that he was overcome with shame, and leapt into the stove and burned to a crisp. His wife placed a funeral tablet over the stove to commemorate him and so began the worship of the Kitchen God. That story may be true, but I suspect that his wife was a Dongbeiren (Northeasterner) like me in which case she probably threw him in the furnace to teach the rogue a lesson. You can keep the Kitchen God happy by leaving occasional offerings of fruit to his image. Burning incense occasionally won't do any harm either: the Kitchen God doesn't appreciate the smell of day old stir-fried fish any more than you do. A few days before next Spring Festival, coat his image with honey and liquor to sweeten him up, and then burn him. He will fly drunkenly to Heaven where he'll report on your behavior, so make sure you paste up a fresh image when you're done combusting the old one.

Follow my spiritual instructions Luckless, and you will have a safe and prosperous Year of the Rabbit. But if you want to avoid breaking your leg, crashing your motorbike and losing your girlfriend, your ayi recommends that you think before you talk, stay away from karaoke bars, and lay off the Beijing draught beer.

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