Winter goes by and Spring comes, which has become the rule of the nature. Spring traditionally marks the coming of Tet Holiday, so Spring is sometimes used interchangeably with Tết in Vietnamese. It is the time for us to review what we have done in the past year, and to plan for the incoming year. On this occasion, I’d like to send you all the best wishes and hope that myriad things go according to your will. By the way, I’d like to tell you the legend of Tao Quan so that you all are aware of our traditional Tet ceremony.
The origin of Tao Quan, the three kitchen gods
There is a popular belief in Viet Nam that Tao Quan, the Three Kitchen Gods, are present in the kitchen of every home. These gods observe everything that takes place there. At the end of the lunar year, on the twenty-third day of the twelfth month, they depart to make their report to Ngoc Hoang, the Jade Emperor, supreme divinity of the Taoist Heaven. On that day, Tao Quan are offered the best of food and spices and are presented with gifts of money and clothing.
The idea of a threesome is unique to this story. More often the kitchen god or genie is described as a single person and may be called Ong Tao, Ong Lo or Ong Vua Bep.
Long, long ago, when Earth and Sky met in the Valley of Whispers, in the dense, green forest there lived a woodcutter and his wife. They were very poor and oftentimes the man was unable to earn enough to buy their food. Frustration and worry drove him to drink, and he would come staggering home at night in a vile mood. Since there was only his wife to listen to him in their ramshackle cottage, he poured out all manner of abuse on the poor woman. Because she was his wife, she had to accept it. Sometimes he would try to appease his rage by smashing the furniture; but when he took to beating her she could endure it no longer. One night, she fled the cottage and was never seen there again.
For days and weeks, the woman wandered in the forest. She was hungry and her feet were torn and bleeding. Finally, she came to a hunter’s cabin. The owner was an honest man, who gave her food and permitted her to rest in his home. She kept house for him then, and after some time they were married. They lived together in great happiness, and it seemed that the woman had forgotten the terrors of her previous marriage.
One day, when Tet (Vietnamese New Year) was approaching and the hunter was out in the forest looking for game, a beggar knocked at the door of the cottage and asked for alms. He was clad in rags and his hair was matted and unkempt. The compassionate woman prepared a meal for the man; while he was eating, she suddenly recognized him as her former husband.
The beggar was still eating when the woman heard the steps of her returning husband. In her mind’s eyes, she saw rapid end of her newfound happiness and became panic-stricken. Quickly she hid the beggar under a haycock .
The hunter had been very successful that day and was returning home with some excellent game. As soon as he entered the cottage, he prepared to roast it in the haycock quite unaware of the beggar’s presence there.
When the beggar found himself ablaze, his first impulse was to cry out; then, fearing that the hunter might kill the woman on discovering him there, he remained silent.
As tongues of flame consumed the haycock, the poor woman was torn with grief. She realized of course that her former husband was meeting death for her sake and that she did not want. Hesitating for no longer than a moment, she threw herself into the fire in order to die with him.
The hunter cried out in dismay when he saw what his wife had done. He tried to pull her back but was unable to do so. Thinking that some act of his had driven her to such desperation, he too jumped into fire, preferring to die with her rather than to continue to live without her.
When the people learned of this touching story, they bowed their heads out of respect for the noble motives that had brought on the deaths of the woman and the two men. They were later acclaimed as Tao Quan, the Three Kitchen Gods.