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reed magazine logoWinter 2009

Ken Brashier

As soon as I saw them, I was fascinated. It’s a morbid delight.

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.

reed magazine logoWinter 2009