Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Under Fishbone Clouds

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Under Fishbone Clouds

A Novel

by Sam Meekings

Under Fishbone Clouds by Sam Meekings X
Under Fishbone Clouds by Sam Meekings
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  • Published:
    Dec 2010, 416 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Elena Spagnolie
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Beyond the Book

This article relates to Under Fishbone Clouds

Print Review

The Kitchen God
The playful yet poignant narrator of Sam Meekings's Under Fishbone Clouds introduces himself as Zao Jun, a being who, before becoming the Kitchen God, was a mortal human. There are many versions of his story spread throughout different regions of China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia, coming from both Taoist and Buddhist traditions, though mythologists date the most popular version back to the Han Dynasty in the 2nd Century BC.

The Kitchen God & His Wife

Though pointedly different than Meekings's version, it is traditionally said that Zhang Lang (as he was known during his time on earth) married an honorable woman, Guo Ding Xiang, but left her for a younger, prettier woman—an act for which he was punished by the Gods. Having lost his money, his lover and his sight, Zhang Lang became a beggar and, coincidentally, went begging at his previous wife's house where he was treated with great kindness. Thinking this woman a stranger, he told his sad story to her and began to weep, and his regretful tears miraculously cured his blindness. Now able to see that he was speaking to his wife, Zhang Lang was filled with so much shame, he threw himself into the hearth of the fireplace. His wife attempted to save his life and pull him out of the fire, but she was only able to rescue one of his legs; consequently, many Chinese people now refer to a fire poker as "Zhang Lang's leg." Guo Ding Xiang mourned the loss of her husband, leaving offerings to him in honor of his memory. Upon hearing his story in heaven, The Jade Emperor made Zhang Lang the Kitchen God, granting him great influence throughout the heavens because he had learned so much from his past failures.

Also known as Zao Shen or Tsao Chun, the Kitchen God is said to be a driving moral force in each household as he watches over the domestic activities and fortunes of its family members. A plaque or paper effigy of Zao Jun and his wife can often be found placed above the kitchen stove, which is considered to be the soul of a Chinese household; and throughout the year, in particular on his "birthday," the 3rd day of the 8th lunar month, and during the Kitchen God Festival, offerings are made to keep him in good spirits.

The Kitchen God Festival is held about one week before the Chinese New Year. Traditionally, effigies of the Kitchen God are burned as a symbolic act of departure. Special offerings might also be made and sometimes his lips will be brushed with honey before being burned in the hopes of "sweetening" his words to the Jade Emperor; or in the event that sweetening isn't enough, sealing his lips completely so he is unable to speak of their bad deeds! The Jade Emperor, also known as The Supreme Deity of Taoism, will then punish or reward as he sees fit - for example, a positive report would be rewarded with good health, abundant harvest and good luck throughout the next year.

From the end of the festival until the New Years Festival a week later, the Kitchen God is absent from his shrine while the house is cleaned in preparation of his return on New Year's Eve. Then, on New Year's Day a new effigy will be placed over the stove to guard the family in the coming new year.

Article by Elena Spagnolie

This "beyond the book article" relates to Under Fishbone Clouds. It first ran in the January 13, 2011 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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