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reed magazine logoWinter 2009
The Tenth Court of Hell

The Tenth Court of Hell, overseen by the Wheel-Turning King. Having endured horrific torments, sinners arrive at the court of King Zhuan Lun. Here they form queues, drink the tea of forgettery, and are ushered into the cycle of rebirth, emerging as insects, birds, nobles, commoners, animals, or fish.

Thus sinners descend from one level to the next, suffering horrible torments at each stage. Fortunately, the amount of time that souls spend in any particular level is limited; seven days in each of the first seven courts, followed by longer, more flexible periods for the final three. In this sense, the scrolls also function as calendars, allowing mourners to track the progress of the deceased, and to offer sacrifices (that is, metaphysical bribes) to the appropriate magistrates in the hope that they show lenience to the dearly departed.

In the Christian tradition, hell is generally seen as a place of eternal torment—once having arrived, there is no way out. The demons who operate it are honest, hard-working types who accept no bribes, and chances for reprieve are nil. Hence, the best strategy is to avoid it at all costs.

The hell of imperial China is quite different. Despite its elaborate structure, its punishments are imposed for no more than a year or two. It is administered by a complex bureaucracy that is prone to error and receptive to the donations of relatives. Most of us are headed there.

Perhaps the single most important difference is that this hell is not all doom and gloom. Having suffered through all their torments, and having thereby discharged their karmic debts, souls finally arrive at the Tenth Court, ruled by the Wheel-Turning King (see scroll on right). Here they drink the tea of forgettery, which wipes all memory of their past lives from their minds, and then join one of the six streams of rebirth—here depicted as insect, bird, human, noble, animal, or fish.

To describe Hell in words is to describe unspeakable brutality. But the scrolls do not come across as merely vicious or sadistic; rather, there is an element of the comic, even the absurd about them. As Brashier points out, they belong to a genre whose purpose is not simply to inform, but also to entertain, and even in some strange way to reassure. Yes, the wicked will be punished. But cheer up. So long as you lead a reasonably decent life, support your local monastery, propagate the sutras, and raise filial children, the Ten Kings will probably go easy on you, and after all the suffering, you will be reborn with a fresh slate. A chance to start over—what could be more comforting than that?

reed magazine logoWinter 2009