The ritual has a Chinese origin but has been ‘‘Vietnamized,” to bear Vietnamese traits. In the words of the Vietnamologists Pierre Huard and Maurice Durand, over the centuries Vietnamese culture has madea point of “never assimilating a foreign element without trying to put its stamp on it.” Several Chinese legends supply explanations concerning this worship of the Kitchen Gods. Those of Shandong province present a close resemblance to the Vietnamese version. Here it is, briefly:
Long ago, a man by the name of Zhang Sheng deserted his wife Guo Dogxing to marry another woman, Li Halting. In the space of two yetirs, the couple squandered away all their possessions. Li Halting took another spouse while her husband became a beggar. On a wintry day, he collapsed in a snowstorm at the door of a house, exhausted with cold and hunger. A maid servant found him there and pulled him into the house. She gave him a hot meat. As he was eating, the mistress of the house turned up. He recognized it was his first wife, Guo Dogxing. Driven by shame, he crawled under the hearth to try and hide himself. But when he was pulled out of there, he had died of the heat. Guo Dogxing recognized him. She died of soưow. Because of his meritorious conduct in life, Zhang Sheng was made a Kitchen God by the Emperor of Heaven. His spouse was Guo Dogxing.
And here is the story of the household gods in Vietnam. A couple was very much in love. Alas, they were childless and conjugal harmony suffered. One day, after a quarrel, the wife left her husband, whose name was Trọng Cao, and went away to another region, where she remarried. Her new husband, Pham Lang, loved her dearly. After a long time spent in solitude and sorrow, Trong Cao went in search of his wife Thi Nhi. He spent all he had, and eventually had to beg for a living. By chance, he came to the house of Phạm Lang, who was that day at work in the fields. Thi Nhi gave him a good meal. She had recognized him, while he, who had grown partly blind because of hunger and illness, failed to see in her his former wife. Having drunk some wine, he fell into a slumber. Thi Nhi took him into the courtyard and hid him under a heap of straw to avoid facing embarrassing questions when Pham Lang returned. In the late afternoon, back from the fields, her husband set fire to the heap of dried straw in order to make fertilizer from the ashes. Before Thi Nhi could intervene, Trong Cao had been burnt to death. Wild with sorrow, she threw herself into the flames. In his turn, driven by despair, Phạm Lang jumped into the raging fire. The Emperor of Heaven, moved by the genuine feeling uniting the three people, made them into household gods. The Vietnamese version, born of a tragedy of love, faithfulness and sacrifice, touches the heart more deeply than the Chinese story.
Both legends are probably survivors of fire worship and the ancient custom of suttee. To the legend of the kitchen gods the Vietnamese added some original modifications. In the Chinese cult, there is only the image of a single god with his spouse sitting beside him. The Vietnamese gods are a trinity: the woman and her two husbands. Popular imagination turns them into three supports of baked earth for pots, called ong Nui (the Kitchen Gentlemen) in Central Vietnam; in the north of the country, although they are called collectively Ong Dau Rau (the Gentlemen bearing the pots), the female sex is attributed to the middle support and the male sex to the others. On the altar dedicated to this trinity, offerings of paper boots and hats are put on the day of the ritual.
On the 23rd day of the 12th moon, the kitchen gods of each household go to Heaven to report to the Jade Emperor on the good and bad actions of each family. Numerous offerings are made to the kitchen gods to enable them to present a favourable report in Heaven. Both Chinese and Vietnamese families offer means of transport for their journey: a sedan chair made of paper in China, a live fish in Viet Nam. After the ritual, the fish is released in a nearby pond or river.