Emperor Taizong permitted one of his officers to execute the Dragon King of the Jing River
Emperor Taizong permitted one of his officers to execute the Dragon King of the Jing River

To Hell And Back

Religion professor Ken Brashier explores the afterlife of imperial China through a collection of “hell scrolls”—macabre paintings that depict an underworld of gruesome torments, merciless demons, and an infernal bureaucracy run amok.

By Chris Lydgate ’90 | December 1, 2009

In the shadow of the sinister Mountain of Perpetual Shade, knots of sinners weep and moan. Black mist rises from the stony ground, stirred by a bitter, howling wind. Fearsome demons bind these unfortunate souls hand and foot and impale them on a wicked hook suspended from a gargantuan scale. After they bleed to death, they are revived and the torture is repeated.

The crime they committed to earn this horrible punishment? They cheated customers in the market by tampering with weights and measures.

Welcome to the hell of imperial China. This particular torment—the Hell of Weights and Measures—is just one of several levels of the underworld overseen by the Ten Kings, or magistrates, who hold sway over the immense and multitudinous territories of the afterlife. If the sheer ghastliness of this penalty seems at odds with the common (Western) conception of Chinese Buddhism as a laidback, anything-goes affair, prepare yourself for a nasty shock.

According to this tradition, the unrighteous must also pass through the Hell of the Thousand Blades, the Hell of Flowing Fire, the Hell of Molten Brass, the Hell of Dung and Urine, the Hell of Quarrelling, the Hell of Much Hatred, the Hell of Brazen Locks, the Hell of Head Chopping, the Hell of Plowing Tongues, the Hell of Sawing Teeth, the Hell of Flaying Skin, the Hell of Vertical Rending, and many other unpleasant locations. Charting the geography of the underworld is an uncertain business, for obvious reasons, but one authority hints darkly of hundreds of thousands of hells, each bristling with torments for the unworthy.

The general idea of damnation as a “supernatural compensator” whereby the wicked are punished for their misdeeds is a recurring theme in many of the world’s religions. Hell enjoys considerable prominence in both Christianity and Islam (despite scant mention in the Old Testament), and civilizations as diverse as the Greeks, the Maya, the Britons, and the Sumerians all subscribed to some form of post-mortem punishment.

But for sheer diabolical ingenuity, it is hard to rival the traditional hell of China. With its labyrinthine divisions and subdivisions, hairsplitting exactitude, and ghoulish extravagance, it resembles nothing so much as a monstrous bureaucracy run by infernal apparatchiks.

This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the history of the Middle Kingdom. Hell is, after all, a reflection of the society that creates it—in this case, a vast empire administered by an endless tangle of civil servants (as many as 43,000 Chinese government officials were on the payroll in 1196) who maintained the machinery of government despite an endless succession of wars, famines, earthquakes, and other natural disasters.

If hell exists in anything more than a metaphorical sense, it is located by definition in an ethereal realm. But as Reed religion professor Ken Brashier points out, the hell of imperial China served several crucial functions right here on earth. It promoted traditional virtues; reinforced social hierarchy; valorized the clergy; propagated the sutras; and offered the soothing consolation that no matter what tribulations one might face in this life, no matter how unfair things might seem, in the end the wicked would get what they deserve.

At first glance, Brashier seems an unlikely ambassador to the<;underworld. Forty-four years old, with warm green eyes and a pious haircut, he exudes a boyish charm. Born and raised in a Lutheran household in a small town in the South Dakota prairie, his first career interest was journalism, but a Rhodes scholarship gave him the chance to switch to the history of China. He subsequently earned a bachelor’s degree from Oxford, a master’s from Harvard, and a doctoral degree from Cambridge, where he focused on the ancestral cult of the Qin and Han dynasties. He arrived at Reed in 1998, and now chairs the religion department. Three years ago, he won the U.S. Professor of the Year Award from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Like most people, Brashier always maintained a passing curiosity in what lies beyond the grave, but his professional interest in hell was sparked by a random coincidence. One day in 1995, tired of translating epitaphs, he wandered through the stacks of the university library at Cambridge, and stumbled across an exhibition catalog that reproduced several “hell scrolls.” What he found particularly intriguing were not simply the gruesome torments and the ruthless efficiency, but the cartoonish style in which they were depicted, suggestive of a sort of metaphysical carnival of horrors. “As soon as I saw them, I was fascinated,” he says. “It’s a morbid delight.”

The practice of portraying hell on large, illustrated scrolls goes back many centuries. Typically, the scrolls were produced in sets of ten—one scroll for each of the Ten Kings of hell. Some were intended to accompany sutras and other holy texts, others were simply put on display in temples and other public places as stark warnings of the dangers of sin. Hell scrolls should be understood as popular art, intended for mass consumption. By and large, they reflect folk tradition rather than official Buddhist doctrine—the cultural equivalent of the cartoon gospel tracts you used to find in phone booths.

Paradoxically, because hell scrolls were generally mass-produced, almost no one bothered to preserve them. The few scrolls that have survived the twin ravages of time and Maoist prohibition date mostly from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and reflect a bewildering array of influences: traditional ancestral cults, which have flourished throughout Chinese history; Confucian ideas about moral conduct; Taoist concepts of order and balance; and Buddhist sutras, which are themselves heavily indebted to Hindu teachings.

Brashier is one of very few Western scholars to explore the genre. Thanks in part to the money he won from the Carnegie Foundation, he has amassed an impressive collection—he now owns more than seventy scrolls—which he uses as a primary resource for a course he teaches at Reed on death and remembrance in Chinese culture.

Brashier’s course also draws on several other sources, three of the most important being the Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva, a Buddhist text dating from roughly 700; the Transformation Text on Mahamaudgalyayana Rescuing His Mother from the Underworld, a Buddhist manuscript dated 921; and Journey to the West, an ancient legend that was set down by Wu Chen-en in the sixteenth century, during the Ming dynasty.

Journey to the West (also known as Monkey) relates the story of the Tang Emperor Taizong (reigned 627–650), who is summoned to the Courts of Hell on a grave charge: that he permitted one of his officers to execute the Dragon King of the Jing River, despite having promised to spare the dragon’s life. Demonic constables arrest Taizong in his dreams and escort him through the desolate plains of the Region of Darkness until they arrive at the gargantuan Central Gate of Hell, where the Ten Kings of the underworld gather to hear the case against him. After hearing the charge, Taizong pleads his innocence. He explains that his officer beheaded the dragon in a dream, while dozing off during a game of chess, and that no one could reasonably have prevented this.<; Furthermore, he argues, the dragon was guilty of a mortal offense, having deliberately altered a command from the Jade Emperor of the Heavens, the supreme being, which is why he was given the death sentence. In fact, Taizong concludes, the case against him is a frivolous diversion, concocted by the dragon in an effort to obscure his own guilt.

The Ten Kings then render their verdict. They had, in fact, known all along that the dragon was guilty, but were bound by protocol to hear the case. Taizong may return to the World of Light, but unfortunately he cannot go back the way he came. Instead, he must go through hell in all its splendid horror, following the path that sinners take through its various levels and torments. Fortunately, Taizong is granted safe passage and does not have to undergo those torments. After witnessing unspeakable suffering, he brings back to earth a vivid description so that in future, men may know the full price of their wickedness.

The Transformation Text similarly involves an innocent observer who through extraordinary circumstances lands in hell but is allowed to return to earth. In this case, the protagonist is a monk named Mahamaudgalyayana, or Mulian, who is so devout in his prayers that he gains the status of arhat, or sainthood, which endows him with supernatural powers. Mulian is shocked to learn that his mother, Lady Niladhi, who died when he was young, was sent to Hell for her sins, and vows to release her. He descends the “infernal paths” where he encounters hungry ghosts and lost souls who were mistakenly summoned to hell because of bureaucratic error—they had the same name as a real sinner (overlapping names are more common in China than in the West.) Finally he arrives at the gate of Hell proper, and confronts its sinister overlord, King Yama.

King Yama warns Mulian that it will be difficult to locate Lady Niladhi, let alone alter her fate. At this point, however, a powerful Buddhist angel intervenes. Summoning the proper fiendish bureaucrats, the angel inspects the records and pinpoints Lady Niladhi’s whereabouts. Mulian wends his way though the Bureau of the Underworld, encountering recorders, bookkeepers, karma investigators, wardens, and the fearsome General of the Five Ways. He finally finds his mother, who is nailed to an iron bed with 49 spikes. She confesses that while she was alive, she committed numerous sins and failed to perform meritorious deeds—notably, copying the sutras.

The warden will not release her, so Mulian goes to the Buddha himself to plead for her freedom. In an act of mercy, Buddha releases Lady Niladhi and all the other souls in hell. Sadly, this does not result in their return to earth. Rather, they become hungry ghosts, condemned to wander through a sort of eternal limbo. Through proper ritual and incantation, Mulian is able to have his mother reincarnated, and once her karmic debt has been discharged, she is allowed to ascend to heaven.

The hell scrolls borrow from all these sources and attempt to formalize them into a coherent system. The First Court, ruled by King Qin Guang, is usually presented as a sort of processing center. In this scroll to the right, the newly deceased are arrested by infernal bailiffs, or beadles (often portrayed with dangling tongues) and dragged down to the underworld. Demons force the dead souls to face the karma mirror, which replays the sins committed in life. After careful inspection of all records, King Qin Guang tallies misdeeds and assigns punishments. These unfortunate souls have committed a number of shocking crimes. One fellow defaced books; another was disrespectful to his in-laws. A third neglected his crops. (To learn their awful punishment, read on.)

On the right, Taizong stands watching, next to the Dragon King, who holds his head in his hands (literally). These characters appear as a sort of seal of approval, validating the authenticity of the scroll. Finally, toward the bottom, virtuous souls (or “goody two-shoes,” as Brashier calls them) are being led off along the Bridge of Seven Treasures toward the Pure Land of the Western Heaven. Having performed good deeds such as propagating Daoism, building temples, being respectful of ancestors, and so on, they now escape the cycle of reincarnation and will live in a sort
of antechamber to heaven to await the next Buddha. In the Chinese tradition, however, heaven is notoriously difficult to enter; most people are headed the other way.

The torments begin in earnest in the Second Court, ruled by King Chi Jiang. Given the scrolls’ obsession with hierarchy, one might expect that the descending levels of hell would contain increasingly wicked sinners, or at least gang together like-minded punishments, but that is not necessarily the case. Nor is there agreement on the precise location of particular torments, which appear to wander from one court to another depending on the artist’s imagination.

The Third Court, ruled by the clean-shaven King Song Di, features an impressive arsenal of pain: adulterers have their hands chopped off and are led by a horse-faced demon towards further punishment. A neighborhood gossip has her tongue ploughed. Sinners who were disrespectful to their parents have their heads chopped off. A corrupt official is packed up in a crate and carted off to prison. (Buddhist teachings invariably condemn corruption, Brashier says, but there are many suggestions that the Ten Kings and their infernal underlings dabble in bribery from time to time.)

Of all the kings of the underworld, the most fearsome is King Yama, who holds sway over the Fifth Court (see cover and below). Originally the Hindu Lord of the Dead, Yama was exported to China through Buddhism and transformed into a terrifying bureaucrat, invariably depicted with dark skin and stern expression. Although he is described as chief of the Ten Kings, he is not aloof from the karmic system, and cannot alter a person’s destiny. Indeed, some accounts hold that Yama himself is a damned soul who must periodically undergo horrific retribution; demons lay him flat on a metal bed and pour molten copper down his throat. Properly chastened, he then returns to his throne to mete out justice to earthly sinners; after his court adjourns, he cavorts with female demons until duty calls again.

In this scroll, an adulterer is cast head-first into a circular mill and ground into pulp. Robbers are flung into the Tree of Swords, murderers impaled on the Hill of Knives, while demons chop off the arms and legs of those who were disrespectful to their parents and in-laws.

Despite a certain amount of jurisdictional overlap (will a man who commits adultery have his arms hacked off in the Third Court or be ground up in the Fifth Court—or both?) sinners must pass through each of the ten courts, and can therefore expect to be punished for every single one of their sins.

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?


Further Readings

Taizong’s Hell, by Ken Brashier. See academic.

Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth-store Bodhisattva:
  the Collected Lectures of Tripitaka Master Hsüan
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)


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