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reed magazine logoWinter 2009

The Ten Courts of Hell

First Court: King Qin Guang. Generally portrayed as an ethereal antechamber where worthy souls are separated from their less fortunate colleagues, thanks in part to a karmic mirror that reveals past misdeeds. The king’s name can be read as “the Great King of Ch’in,” referring to the name of the Chinese state since the Western Chou dynasty.

Second Court: King Chu Jiang. Here the torments begin in earnest. In one set of scrolls, licentious women are punished here by being bound to a metal chimney, while demons tie gossips to a post and throw knives at them.

Third Court: King Song Di. Usually depicted as beardless, this king’s name translates to “King Emperor Song,” referring to an eastern state. He typically oversees many unpleasant torments: gossips have their tongues plowed; adulterers have their hands chopped off; rude teenagers lose their heads.

Fourth Court: King Wu Guan. Depictions vary, but in some scrolls this king administers punishment for deceit: dodgy merchants are impaled on a massive hook; adulterers are sawn in two; thieves are crucified.

Fifth Court: King Yama. Originally a Hindu deity, King Yama is usually depicted as the most senior of the Ten Kings. However, he is not all-powerful and cannot circumvent the karmic system. Typical torments include impaling murderers on the Hill of Knives, hanging robbers on the Tree of Knives, and dismembering rebellious teenagers.

Sixth Court: King Bian Cheng. The origin of this king’s name remains obscure. In one scroll, he makes sure that murderers and arsonists are properly crushed by a rice-husking hammer.

Seventh Court: The King of Tai Mountain. Tai Mountain, located in the province of Shandong, has been associated with the dead since the Han Dynasty. This court is often equipped with a terrace where sinners can look back at their home village to see if their children and grandchildren are mourning. Meanwhile, bullies are hurled into cauldrons of boiling oil, and the obstinate are chopped in half.

Eighth Court: King Ping Deng. Also known as the King of Balance, this magistrate oversees more karmic retribution: those who hunted animals are mauled by tigers; backstabbers and buck-passers are trampled by cattle.

Ninth Court: King Du Shi. The torments are drawing to a close. This court is sometimes depicted as the place where liars and chatterers are forced to swallow pellets of superheated iron; plotters and turncoats are eviscerated; and hustlers are bound to a pillar of heated brass.

Tenth Court: The Wheel-turning King. After their long and unpleasant journey, sinners finally enter the court of this king, also known as Zhun Lun, where they drink the tea of forgettery and are subsequently reborn.

Further Readings

  • Taizong’s Hell, by Ken Brashier. See
  • Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth-store Bodhisattva: the Collected Lectures of Tripitaka Master Hsüan Hua. Translated by Bhiksu Heng Ching. (NY: Buddhist Text Translation Society, 1974)
  • Transformation Text on Mahamaudgalyayana Rescuing His Mother from the Underworld. Translated by Victor H. Mair, The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature. (NY: Columbia University Press, 1994)
  • The Journey to the West, by Wu Cheng’en. Translated by Anthony C. Yu. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977)
  • The Bureaucracy of Hell, by Lothar Ledderose, in Ten Thousand Things: Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000)
reed magazine logoWinter 2009