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reed magazine logoWinter 2009
The Fourth Court of Hell

The First Court of Hell, overseen by King Qin Guang. Demonic constables arrest mortals and drag them down to hell, where a karmic mirror reveals misdeeds they committed. After Qin Guang has checked the records, he assigns punishments in the center of the image. Below, the righteous are led along the Bridge of Seven Treasures to the Western 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.)

King Yama

King Yama

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.

reed magazine logoWinter 2009