Rethinking a classic story

“The Picture on the Kitchen Wall,” a story from the classic Sophia Fahs book From Long Ago and Many Lands, has some serious problems: it’s arguably not very Chinese, it contains a number of hidden biases, etc. This story is, in fact, a good example of why we should question everything that Sophia Fahs wrote — even though she remains the most brilliant Unitarian Universalist religious educator we’ve ever seen, she was not by any means perfect.

“The Picture on the Kitchen Wall” purports to tell the back story of the Kitchen God, the minor deity in Chinese popular religion whose image is mounted somewhere near the kitchen stove. Each year, according to most accounts, the Kitchen God leaves the kitchen and reports to a higher deity (sometimes identified in English-language accounts as the Jade Emperor) about the good and bad deeds of the family in whose house he lives. In Fahs’s retelling of the Kitchen God’s story, he was originally a historical figure, a person named Chang Kung.

In tracing Chang Kung, I find him mentioned in a book of maxims attributed to Emperor K’ang-hsi [Kangxi], who ruled China from 1661-1722, an early emperor of the Ch’ing [Qing] dynasty. These maxims appeared in English translation in 1817 as The Sacred Edict, Containing Sixteen Maxims of Emperor Kang-He, Amplified by his Son, the Emperor Yoong-Ching, trans. Rev. William Milne (London: Black, Kingsbury, Parbury, and Allen, 1817), pp. 51-52:

“Formerly, nine generations of Chang-kung-e inhabited the same house; and a Mr. Chin of Keang Chow had seventy persons who all ate together. Those who belong to one family, and are of one surname, should think of their ancestors; rather exceed, than be deficient in respect; rather surpass, than be wanting in kindness. When there is prosperity, rejoice mutually, by an interchange of social affections; when adversity, sympathize mutually, by affording reciprocal aids. In building a family temple to sacrifice to ancestors; in erecting a domestic academy for instructing youth; in purchasing a charity field for the supply of indigent brethren; and in correcting the family calendar, to interweave the names of the more distant relatives — let the same mutual aid be afforded.”

Chang Kung continued to be mentioned by later English-speaking writers as the nineteenth century progressed. A typical example, with an unpleasantly racist conclusion, may be found in Arthur H. Smith D.D., Village Life in China: A Study in Sociology (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., Publishers of Evangelical Literature, 1899), p. 27:

“Above the cooking-range is fastened the image of the kitchen-god, popularly supposed to be a deification of Chang Kung, a worthy who lived in the eighth century of our era, and was able to live in perfect peace, although nine generations simultaneously inhabited the same yard. Even his hundred dogs were so polite as to wait for another, if any one of them was late at a meal. The reigning emperor of the T’ang Dynasty sent for Chang Kung, to inquire the secret of such wonderful harmony, and calling for a pen, he is said to have written the character denoting ‘Forbearance’ a great number of times. According to tradition the picture of this patriarch was placed in every dwelling as a stimulus to the imitation of his example, a purpose for which it unfortunately proves quite inert.”

Smith was writing for an audience who supported Christian missions to China. In Smith’s retelling, the story attempts to show how the Chinese as a race have a culture that has some impulse to lead a good life, but they still need to be converted by Christian missionaries in order to become truly civilized. It is unclear where details like the hundred polite dogs came from; nor is it clear how the point of the story became summarized in the single English word “Forbearance.”

In 1937, Frances Carpenter provided additional details and published the story in her story “The God That Lived in the Kitchen,” in Tales of a Chinese Grandmother (New York: Doubleday, 1937), pp. 39-46. Carpenter combined the story of Chang-kung with the story of Tsao-chun [Zao Jun], the Kitchen God. Sophia Fahs then borrowed this story from Frances Carpenter. True to her naturalist theology, and her theory of the developmental needs of children, Fahs removed any hint of supernaturalism. Thus Fahs leaves out a common element of other versions of the story: that once a year, the Kitchen God ascends to the Jade Emperor to report on the good or bad deeds of the family in whose kitchen he lives.

The only English-language sources who state that the Kitchen God was once Chang Kung are Carpenter and Fahs. Other English-language sources on Chinese mythology give several other versions of the story of the origin of the Kitchen God, who is more often referred to by another name, Tsao-chun [Zao Jun]. In one version, he was a Taoist priest (see, e.g., E. T. C. Werner, Myths and Legends of China [London: George Harrap & Co., 1922], pp. 166-168). In another version of the story, now well-known in U.S. popular culture, he was a man who, in one way or another, maltreated his virtuous wife, and after a series of mishaps which finally caused him to see the error of his ways, he was transformed by higher powers into the Kitchen God.

This latter version of the origin of the Kitchen God has become well known in U.S. culture through Amy Tan’s novel The Kitchen God’s Wife. Tan’s novel offers a feminist critique, not only of the myth, but also a critique of the traditional Chinese or more broadly the Confucian, notion that women should be subservient to men. For a useful discussion of Tan’s critique, see Guiyou Huang, “Long a Mystery and Forever a Memory: God vs. Goddess in the Ethnic Novel,” Asian American Literary Studies (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), pp. 132-151.

To return to the Fahs version of the story of the Kitchen God: her version of the story is problematic for several reasons. First, the story appears to be the product of the English-language world, and therefore should not be presented as a typically Chinese story. Second, the origins of this version of the story were influenced by missionaries and colonizers, an influence many of us wish to distance ourselves from. Third, the point of her story is that kindness is the most important virtue, but the word “kindness” was Frances Carpenter’s interpretation of “forbearance”; and who knows what Chinese concept (if any) was translated by the word “forbearance.” Fourth, with what we know now about child development, we no longer feel the need to shelter children so completely from supernatural elements in stories; children have a much greater ability to distinguish between truth and myth or fantasy than Fahs gave them credit for. Finally, there are many smaller points in the story that we may find now problematic, such as Fahs’s blanket assertion that “many people of China have large families.”

But the biggest stumbling block to using this story with children today, in my opinion, is the fact that “kindness” is the whole point of the story. Going back to K’ang-hsi’s The Sacred Edict, Chang Kung’s virtue lies adhering to the Confucian order that reveres ancestors; in mutual respect; in mutual affection when times are good and in mutual support when times are bad; etc. If I were to sum up the virtue of Chang Kung in one word, I would be inclined to turn to one of the five Confucian virtues; in particular, I believe Chang Kung’s virtues can be summed up as Ren, which can be translated as kindness, but also as forbearance or humaneness, wanting to help others. In the Analects at the end of Chapter 6, Ren is defined thus: “The man of perfect virtue, wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, enlarges others” (James Legge translation).

In short, Sophia Fahs’s retelling of the story appears to be more American than Chinese, it uses developmental assumptions that are questionable, and it contains hidden assumptions that we might not want to pass on to our children. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it oversimplifies the central point of the story by reducing the Confucian virtue Ren to mere kindness.

I am fine with discarding this story, but I am not fine with discarding Ren. So — is there another story that we could use to present to school-aged children the Confucian virtue of Ren? Or could this story be rewritten to be more true to Chinese sources, and to more accurately present the virtue of Ren?


For the sake of reference, the Fahs version of the story follows:

The Picture on the Kitchen Wall

Long ago, in the land of China there lived a very old grandfather, named Chang Kung, who had a very large family. First, there were Chang Kung’s own sons. When his sons grew up they all married and their wives came to live in Chang Kung’s house. Then grandchildren were born. When these grandsons grew up, they also married and their wives were added to Chang Kung’s family. Then came the great-grandchildren. So Chang Kung’s family grew and grew until there were several hundred people in it — all living together. There were old people and young people, middle-sized people and children. Always there were a number of babies.

Besides all this, Chang Kung’s family was very fond of pet animals, especially dogs. It is said that at one time one hundred pet dogs belonged to the household.

As Chang Kung’s family grew larger and larger, his house had to grow bigger and bigger too, until it became a collection of houses standing side by side around a large open courtyard. A high stone wall stood like a fence around all the houses, and that made all the houses together seem like one big home.

The larger his family grew, the happier old Chang Kung became. He liked to eat at one of the big long tables with his big and little children beside him. He enjoyed sitting in the sunny courtyard where he could watch his great-grandchildren play.

But Chang Kung’s family is not remembered after these many years simply because it was such a large family. Many people of China have large families. Chang Kung is still remembered because, it is said, the members of his family never quarreled. At least so the story goes. The children never quarreled in their play. The old people never quarreled with each other and never scolded the children. Nobody — big or little — ever said a cross word. Nobody ever did a mean thing. Some said jokingly that even the dogs did not quarrel or bite. When they were brought their bones they would not even bark, but all would wag their tails and wait their turns.

Stories about this remarkable household spread far and wide over the country just as the breezes blow far and wide in the spring. Finally news of Chang Kung’s happy family reached the ears of the Emperor.

Now it so happened that the Emperor was about to make a journey to the Western Hills, to a place not far from the home of Chang Kung. So he decided to visit this wonderful household on his way back, and to see for himself whether or not the rumors he had heard were true.

What a sight it was the day the Emperor arrived outside the village gate. First in the royal procession came the very tall guards dressed in blue and red, carrying long bows and arrows in their hands. Then came the mandarins, those important men in the Emperor’s court. Their long silk gowns were beautifully embroidered with figures of colored birds. Blue and green peacock feathers waved from their round hats. Other attendants followed, playing flutes and harps as the procession marched down the street.

At last came the Emperor himself in his richly adorned sedan chair, carried on the shoulders of four men in red. When the Emperor entered the gate of Chang Kung’s home, the old man himself was there to bow many times and to greet his Emperor with very polite words.

“Very excellent and very aged sir,” said the Emperor, “it is said that inside your walls no cross words are ever spoken. Can this be true?”

“Lord of ten thousand years,” said Chang Kung, “you do my poor house far too much honor. It is true that my family does not quarrel, but it would please us greatly if you would consent to walk about our humble courts and judge for yourself.”

So the Emperor made his way from one house to another and from one room to another. He talked with everyone he met. In the great Hall of Politeness, he was served delicious food and drink. As he sipped his tea from a dainty cup, he said to Chang Kung: “You must have a golden secret in order to keep so many people living together in such order and peace. I, too, should like to know your secret.”

Then old Chang Kung called his servants to bring a tablet of smooth bamboo. (In those long-ago days there was no paper. All writing was done on wood or on stone.) Chang Kung asked also for his brush and ink, and the ink-stone with its little well of water. He took the brush in his hand and, dipping it into the water and then on the ink, he wrote one word on the tablet. He wrote the word a second time and a third time. He wrote the word over and over until he had written it one hundred times. Then with a low bow, he placed the tablet in the hands of the Emperor.

“You have written many words,” said the Emperor, “but at the same time you have written only one word.”

“Ah,” said Chang Kung, “but that one word is the golden secret, O Son of Heaven. It is KINDNESS over and over without any ending.” Chang Kung nodded his gray head as he spoke.

The Emperor was so pleased with the golden secret that he, too, called for a bamboo tablet. Taking the brush that Chang Kung had used, the Emperor wrote these words on his tablet: “Let all the families of China learn the golden secret of Chang Kung and his family.”

When the Emperor had finished writing, he said: “Let this tablet be fastened to the outside of the gate where everyone passing may read it.”

Not many years after the Emperor’s visit Chang Kung died, but the story of his happy household has never been forgotten. People asked the Emperor to have pictures of the old man painted and sold so that families might hang his picture on the wall above their kitchen stoves to remind them to keep the golden secret that Chang Kung and his family had learned.

That is why, after these many, many years, in many homes in China, at the New Year season, a fresh bright picture of Chang Kung is pasted on the wall behind the kitchen stove. Many Chinese will tell you it is a picture of the Kitchen God, but other people say that Chang Kung was once just a very kind and good man who helped the members of his family to learn to live happily together without quarreling. Since so many people think that God is perhaps much like the very best person that can be imagined, such a good person as Chang Kung seems to them to be like God himself.

To look at the picture of Chang Kung over the kitchen stove every morning helps to remind many thousands of people in China to speak kindly to one another. They feel as if Chang Kung were watching them and listening as they go about their work. They can sometimes imagine they hear him speak that golden word — KINDNESS.

Once a year on the night before New Year’s, the picture of Chang Kung is taken down and burned. As the flames and smoke go upward, the people think: “Chang Kung is flying back to heaven to tell the great God of all the people just how well everyone has behaved during the past year.” Three days later, they will paste new pictures of Chang Kung on the walls over their kitchen stoves and they will say: “He has now come back again to the earth to keep watch over us for another year.”

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