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reed magazine logoWinter 2009

To Hell and Back

Hell of Weights and Measures

The Hell of Weights and Measures

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

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.

The Fourth Court of Hell

The Fourth Court of Hell, overseen by King Wu Guan. This scroll shows the king, assisted by a horse-faced court official, administering the bureaucratic machinery of his realm. Here thieves and arsonists are crucified; false merchants impaled on hooks; adulterers sawn in two; sinners cast off the Bridge of No Alternative into a foaming river where they drown, savaged by dogs and snakes; and gluttons transformed into animals and beaten in the Transmogrification Enclosure.

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.

reed magazine logoWinter 2009