Content created: 2009-01-30
File last modified:
Descriptions of what happens to the human soul after death abound in China, as in other places. An extremely common motif is that after death we are rewarded or punished by a morally concerned universe for the deeds of our lives on earth.
In recent dynasties, various accounts of this judgment have been composed under the awkward title "Jade Guidebook and Precious Transmission" (Yùlì Bǎochāo 玉历宝钞). "The Divine Panorama" is Herbert Giles' more graceful rendering of this name, although surely "The Infernal Panorama" would have been less misleading. (The element lì 历/曆 that I have here rendered "guidebook" refers to a modern calendar or to a traditional lunar almanac, which included markings for times of good and bad fortune but was also often amplified to contain edifying moral or practical texts of various kinds. Perhaps for this reason, the translation "Jade Calendar" or "Jade Almanac" is common for the present work, despite the absence of calendrical material in it.)
Nearly all such texts are intended for wide distribution in order to encourage people to mend their erring ways before they confront the shadowy purgatorial realm of the "earth prisons" (dìyù 地狱) that English writers have usually called "purgatory" (or more vividly "hell"). Pious people still pay to have them reprinted over and over for free distribution to all who would receive them, and indeed most of the texts themselves explicitly encourage doing this as a way to better one's eventual karmic odds.
The typical text describes the netherworld as a dreary, underground place, divided into ten (or more) courts or diàn 殿, each with a number of subordinate dungeons within it (called "little earth prisons" or xiǎo dìyù 小地狱). Each court is headed by an infernal "king" or "lord" (wáng 王), who presides over it as a magistrate accompanied by scribes and lictors. The arrangement is modeled on a romanticized bureaucracy, with countless regulations, provisions for variation in the severity of the punishments, and records of the proceedings being passed back and forth among the various dungeons and courts.
The concept of hell was almost certainly present in China before it came with Buddhism from India. In the imported Indian tradition that merged with it, there are 18 greater hells and countless thousands of sub-hells. The scheme with ten hells is apparently a later folk simplification. It enshrined clasically in the Scripture of the Ten Kings (Shí Wáng Jīng 十王经), the earliest extant copies of which come from the early 900s. (Ledderose 2000:176)
The ten kings ultimately report to the Jade Emperor (Yùhuáng Shàngdì 玉皇上帝) by way of a figure with the title Great Emperor of Fēngdū (Fēngdū Dàdì 酆都大帝).
The folklorist E.T.C. Werner tells us that a rebel leader called Chǔ Bà 楚霸 ("the tyrant of the state of Chǔ") was executed in the Qín 秦 dynasty (period 05) and appointed by the celestial forces to govern the deceased spirits at Fēngdū 酆都, a county in Sìchuān 四川 province surrounding the modern city of Chóngqìng 重庆. (Linguistic note.)
Of Fēngdū, Werner writes (1932: 127):
All souls entering these regions are interviewed by him , and their names registered, before being sent to the First Section. Each month the Ten Kings make a record of what has happened within their districts and forward it to to Ch'in Kuang-wang [Qín Guǎng wáng 秦广王], the King of the First Section, who submits it to the Emperor Fêng-tu. These monthly statements he forwards to the God of the Eastern Peak [Dōngyuè Dàdì 东岳大地] and the Pearly Emperor [Yùhuáng Shàngdì 玉皇上帝]. Through him all the affairs of Hades are managed.
The entry to the infernal Fēngdū was traditionally thought to be through a portal somewhere in or near the city of Fēngdū, leading to a place called the Wòjiāo Rock (Wòjiāoshí 沃燋石). (Wòjiāo is sometimes written 沃礁 or 沃焦, and sometimes pronounced wù rather than wò and/or qiǎo rather than jiāo.) Warner (p. 315) equates Wòjiāo Rock to the Indian Meru or Sumeru, and describes it as:
A fabulous mountain in the navel or centre of the earth, on which is situated Swarga, the heaven of Indra, containing the cities of the gods and the habitations of celestial spirits and the habitations of celestial spirits. It would seem to be some mountain north of the Himalayas.
The Wòjiāo Rock is mentioned at the beginning of each story. But in popular thought (and artistic representation), the entry to hell is the heavily fortified Ghost Gate (Guǐmén Guān 鬼门关, shown at left), and a person is summoned to it at death by a pair of infernal lictors. (In Taiwan they are identified with two sworn brothers named Xiè 谢 and Fàn 范. [Story Link])
Among the ten infernal lords themselves, and presiding over the fifth court, is King Yánluó 阎罗王, a kind of first among equals, who figures in folklore, proverbs, and figures of speech as "the king of the land of the dead." (A dangerous driver, for example, may be described as seeking an appointment with King Yánluó.) Indeed, the first syllable of his name is sometimes extended to the set of ten kings taken collectively, and called yán wáng 阎王, "the yán kings," not an inappropriate term, since yán by itself means "gate."
However the more likely derivation of the term is that Yánluó is an abbreviation of Yánmó-luóshì 阎摩罗士, in the first two syllables of which which one may recognize a Chinese transcription of the Indian Yama-raja. (In some paintings, although not in our text, the magistrate of the fifth court is given the name King Sēnluó 森罗王. The term sēn appropriately means "dreary.")
Real kings did not look like the kings of hell, and real courts did not look like the folk representations of the courts of hell. If the artists were inspired by anything (aside from earlier paintings and sculptures), it would probably have been popular theatre, where large events were fitted to small stages, and where dramatic gestures and colorful costumes were intended to hold the attention of the observer. Nor did real courts impose the punishments represented here. One modern work observes:
… it is immediately clear that all [punishments] are quite beyond what a Qing [dynasty] magistrate could legally impose. They are imaginary torments that no viewer could see or experience in the real-world Chinese judicial system. These illustrations do not show people undergoing torment; they mime what imagined torments might look like, not how real torments appeared. And yet they are offered to the viewer as visual transcriptions of something real, in the expectation that literal readers will be shocked and scared by what they see." (Brook, Bourgon, & Blue 2008: 137)
However unrealistic, the kings and courts are bureaucratic, inspired by the institutions of imperial Chinese government, even if not really a reflection thereof. Pervading the courts, as it did the Chinese imperial bureaucracy itself, is a strong Confucian moral element, which, like all folk Confucianism, centers on filial piety, but extends out to a broader concern for treating people in general decently, even if one treats near ones more decently than distant ones. Lapses of Confucian decency, and lapses of filial piety in particular, are the main causes of one's infernal punishment.
Acknowledging the folk Confucianism involved, the Chinese image of postmortal judgment, and the notion of retribution (bào 报) for one's good and (especially) bad acts in life, has roots in remote, pre-Confucian antiquity. But cosmic retribution is heavily influenced by folk Buddhism, so much so that it is considered by some to be simply a folk corruption of an originally Indian Buddhist idea.
Certainly important Buddhist themes pervade it, including the constant symbolization of evil deeds in general by the act of eating meat or otherwise taking life.
Explicitly Buddhist are two popular bodhisattvas or púsà 菩萨, the Earth Treasury Bodhisattva (Dìzàng púsà 地藏菩萨) and the Bodhisattva Guānyīn 观音菩萨, both of whom embody a pervasive sense of compassion in a system centered far more vividly on grotesque ways of inflicting overwhelming physical pain. Neither of them is a central figure in this text (excluding the prolog), but in temple sculptures, the Earth Treasury Bodhisattva is normally seated immediately behind the throne of King Yánluó in the fifth court, keeping watch that justice be tempered with mercy. (For more about him, check the brief extract of scripture about his earlier incarnations on this web site. Link)
Central to the Chinese theme of retribution (and the very Buddhist presentation of it as specifically karmic retribution), is reincarnation at the end of an erring soul's tribulations to a new life determined by its just deserts.
Karmic retribution figures in most other popular morality texts. But that says nothing in itself about what deeds produce good or bad karma. Here, as in so many other tracts, the anonymous authors and editors have been quite explicit in laying out dozens of explicit examples. They include doubting established religious teachings, or ignoring the constraints of social structure, or indulging in pornography, or concocting aphrodesiacs.
But most importantly, the examples of sinful behavior relate to outrageous abuse of fellow human beings. We read here, for example, of men who trick gullible women into being their concubines and then dump them, or of scavengers of dead bodies who use them to stuff meat buns sold to innocent customers, or of those who mix random ingredients and sell them as medicine to the gullible.
Return to top.
Stephen Teiser's learnèd volume The Scripture of the Ten Kings describes the beginnings of the Chinese Buddhist idea of purgatory as seen especially in the texts relating to it that emerged from the famous Dūnhuáng 敦煌 Cave manuscript collections. Although his appended translation bears little resemblance to the text here, the accompanying illustrations make it clear that the notion of ten hells, overseen by the same ten kings we meet here, underlay the far more liturgical Scripture of the Ten Kings (Shíwáng Jīng 十王经), a work which, he tells us, "was probably written in China in the ninth century, based on notions that crystallized sometime in the seventh" (Teiser 1994:1).
What about the modern version? Guō Lìchéng (1984: 19, 26) recounts the tradition that the Jade Guidebook was carried to Sìchuan 四川 province in the Liáo 辽 dynasty (period 16, AD 907-1125) by a Buddhist monk with the religious name of Dànchī 淡痴 ("Poor and Foolish"), who presented the text to another monk named Wùmí 勿迷 ("Be Not Misled"), who began distributing copies about 1098 or so. Leon Wieger (1913: 392), although not attributing it to the efforts of Poor and Foolish and Be Not Misled, also suggests that the underlying text was probably composed sometime during the (overlapping) Sòng 宋 dynasty (period 15, AD 960-1279).
Some Chinese antiquarians are willing to be much more specific. A certain Xiāo Xuéliáng 萧学良, in notes included with a morality-tract reprint of the present version (n.d.: 28), tells us that "Poor and Foolish" was a Daoist adept. He was wandering in the mountains one fine day, specifically in the 9th lunar month of the gēngwǔ year of the Tàipíng reign period of the Liáo emperor Shèngzōng 辽太平庚午年九月重阳日, (reign 16b-6), in other words in the autumn of AD 1030). On his walk he encountered the entry to Fēngdū with a sign above the portal reading “Exit of the Living, Entry of the Dead” (Chū Shēng Rù Sǐ 出生入死). The realm had been thrown open for a kind of open house in honor of the birthday of the monarch of the place, the Great Emperor of Fēngdū (Fēngdū Dàdì 酆都大帝), whom we met earlier. Dànchī was invited to join in and, in view of his great religious merit, asked to carry the text back to the world of the living.
However, the version offered here, which is the one that, with occasional variations, is most often distributed today in temples and by pious societies across China, does not seem to be written in eleventh-century prose, literary or vernacular, and it includes obvious later elements. It appears that, throughout the centuries, different editors have felt free to modify the text in minor ways, usually through linguistic or cultural modernizations —introducting penalties for careless driving or the misusing the Internet for example— or discrete omissions, such as references to multiple wives. One nearly always senses that the editorial hand is attached to the body of a deeply conservative, extremely elderly, censorious, and rather grouchy self-appointed moralist.
Indeed, as a translator Giles did some of this kind of modification himself, considering an occasional passage too disgusting to translate in detail. Giles' interest was essentially ethnographic. The goal of most Chinese editors today is pedagogical, with many printings being aimed at the ignorantly sinful, but perhaps almost as many intended for potentially sinful children.
But the Chinese text of his era appears also to have contained greater elaboration of a few passages than one finds today, and the version translated here has a few contemporary touches. For example, the present text condemns pornographic movies, a new feature, even though it refers to success in the long vanished imperial service examinations, and it appears that slaves and concubines appeared in earlier versions that are missing today.
Some versions are quite different, as though retold from scratch. For example, Wieger's bilingual version, presented in Moral Tenets and Customs in China (1913) is much more colloquial and uses simpler vocabulary, so that it differs in the wording of most of its sentences, even though it follows the same general ordering of the parts.
In some temples I have retrieved versions that are converted to comic book format, or that are severely shortened. One of these, for example, (Jiǎng 1985a) abandons the numbering of hells and simply presents individually named dungeons, luridly illustrated, with rewritten text (and in some cases Japanese and English translations of the rewrites). Some texts update the crimes to include drunken driving, computer scams, or other iniquities of the modern era.
On the free literature tables of Taiwan temples one finds reprint after reprint of a derivative work, A Journey Through Hell (Dìyù Yóujì 地獄遊記, DYYJ 1978) produced by planchette between 1976 and 1978 by the influential Shèngxián Táng 圣贤堂 of Táizhōng 台中 and made up of conversations between a believer named Yáng 杨 (the medium), his guide, the Salvationist Living Buddha 齐公活佛 (a frequent patron of séance groups), and the infernal kings. (An English translation is available on-line. [Link])
Although extremely popular and quite innovative, this is not the first journey through hell. For example, also from Dūnhuáng is a medieval account of a visit by the Tàizōng 太宗 Emperor of the Táng 唐 dynasty (period 12). (Story Link)
Far from being merely of antiquarian interest, the millenium-old account of Tàizōng's excursion even became the basis of a Singapore comic book published in English as well as Chinese (Féng 2001). A manga book on hell for children (Katsusaki, n.d.), the cover of which is shown above left, is in the same tradition, as the young protagonist visits the eight (sic) hells as an accidental tourist, followed by a glimpse of bliss in the land of bodhisattvas. (He is received rather less well than Tàizōng or Dànchī and undergoes a bit of suffering as well as merely observation.)
I think it is fair to say that there is no definitive text of this work, despite the near universality —for the time being— of the version here. Perhaps there is no earliest version either. Rather the Jade Guidebook is best seen as a genre of moral story-telling, at once traditional and flexible, carrying an aura of antiquity that is false in detail but authentic in the underlying message of both the cosmic legitimacy of human decency, and the desire for retribution to fall upon the perverse and depraved.
The Jade Guidebook has a seemingly clear organization, wherein each court of hell is presented with its location first, then the punishments administered therein or a listing of the dungeons specializing in particular punishments, next the types of sinners punished, and finally the way in which its horrors may be avoided, often in the form of a little exhortation. However the admixture, sometimes chaotically, of material that does not follow the scheme suggests (to me) that the work now circulating may have originated, like so much of the text material important in Chinese popular religion, as trance writing or transcriptions of trance utterances. Other hints of such an origin are the repetition of material in more than one place, the hortatory asides, inconsistencies in the geography described, and the occasional descent into unintelligibility.
Return to top.
Representations of the courts of hell are common in Chinese folk art, where they are generally considered a bit morbid, but where they are found fascinating by children (and foreigners) and are widely thought to be edifying to the unwashed.
For centuries large and wealthy temples have included models of some of the torments of hell, sometimes as life-sized dioramas. Some of the illustrations used here come from modern equivalents, which today are sometimes animated. The picture at the right is an animated, near-life-sized diorama in central Taiwan. In this display, a demonic torturer is slipping a sinner over and over into and out of a wok of boiling oil. Visitors to Singapore or (formerly) Hong Kong may have encountered some such statuary in the famous Tiger Balm Gardens (Hǔbào Biéshù 虎豹别墅) of those two cities.
References to Hell are not wanting in politics either. As he approached death, Máo Zédōng spoke of going to see King Yánluó. Meanwhile, propagandists in Taiwan used images clearly based on traditional representations of hell in their campaign to discredit the Communist régime. (Not surprisingly, such exaggeration tended to discredit the propagandist more than the intended object of hatred.)
The drawing at the left is from a 1969 propaganda tract called specifically, "Pictures of the Hell of Communist Bandit Terrorism" (Gōngfěi Bàozhèng Dìyù Tú 共匪暴政地獄圖) (Zhōu 1969: 42). The picture, like the diorama, shows an ill-omened sinner about to be fried in a wok of boiling oil. The same anti-communist tract contains a picture of water-boarding as another "demonic" torture [p. 25]. So hell imagery has clearly been very much alive in modern politics.
(Americans may remember Vice-President Cheney's defense of water-boarding as a legitimate technique of "enhanced interrogation" in the "war on terror," its subsequent abolition by Congress, and Donald Trump's 2016 campaign promise to resume the practice upon becoming president. At the end of May, 2018, the European Court of Human Rights censured Lithuania and Romania for their complicity in allowing the CIA to perform this act on their soil.)
In Taiwan, paintings representing the torments of the damned have long been a preferred wall decoration for funerals and memorial services. Murals representing these realms can be found in the rooms of local temples that are dedicated to memorial services, and scrolls showing them are hung up along the walls of temporary tent-chapels used for street or home-courtyard funerals.
The psychodynamics of the entire fascination with representations of hell, including the misfit between the forgiving text and the terrifying pictures and sculptures, calls for analysis. (A fascinating attempt is Wolfred Eberhard's 1967 book, Guilt & Sin in Traditional China.)
But considering the funeral chapels, it is a special challenge to interpret the possible psychodynamics of the juxtaposition of the image of the punishment of the dead with the grief expressed in a funeral for a beloved family member. (My article on that subject is listed at the bottom of this page.)
Each of the courts of hell in the present text is illustrated. The anonymous woodcut illustrations have been distributed with the majority of different editions I have in my collection, sometimes very slightly modified when recopied from one booklet to another. Except for being better printed, they are similar to illustrations made for many centuries to illustrate such tracts.
For each court I have also included murals photographed from the painter's scafolding as they were being completed among the rafters of the hall for memorial services at the Qìng'ān Gōng temple in Xīgǎng Township, in Táinán County, Táiwān (台南縣西港鄉慶安宮) during my first fieldwork, 1966-1968. I am most grateful to the enthusiastic cooperation of the authorities of the Xīgǎng temple and of the artist in granting me this opportunity. (As happens in heavily patronized temples, within a decade they were so begrimed by incense smoke as to have become nearly invisible, and they have no doubt been replaced several times since these pictures were taken.)
I have supplemented these with additional pictures from various sources as indicated, especially from a set of anonymous 1970s-vintage printed scrolls intended for the use of funeral officiants (which reversed the names of the kings of halls 8 and 9), and photos of other artwork as I have occasionally encountered it.
Although scenes of torture in the various dungeons are favorites with illustrators, they receive only very brief mention in the text, normally only in the titles of the dungeons.
But also important are a few of the "landmarks" of the infernal realms, such as the great mirror that reveals the transgressions a sinner has just denied (Court 1), or the terrace where the deceased may watch his family betray the legacy he sought to leave to them (Court 5). The bridges crossed to a new life make fine material for a theme park, but are mentioned only briefly in our text (in Court 10, although they are located near the entry to the first court).
Some of the prisons from which memorial rites seek to liberate trapped souls are discussed in other parts of the text than the descriptions of the ten courts. And so on.
Illustrators have, it seems, felt relatively free to move some infernal landmarks from one court to another to achieve a better distribution of material across a series of pictures. For example, the text describes The Dungeon Where Carts Crush People as part of the Eighth Court, but the mural painter deliberately places it in the Ninth, where I have situated his mural, since it clearly shows the crushing occuring directly under the gaze of the lord of the Ninth Court. This displacement is true of many of the dungeons, but also of the famous six bridges of reincarnation, which may be at the beginning or end of the whole series.
Although Chinese artists, unlike Dante, have not made use of hell scenes to suggest the fate of contemporary political figures, some known figures do turn up in hell who are not part of the text itself. In particular, the Buddhist monk, Mùlián 目莲, shown above right from an altar retablo and below left from a children's book is frequently represented. His descent into the dark regions to save his mother as a filial son provides a vivid example of why being a Buddhist cleric is not unfilial, whatever skeptics may say, and is thus an inherent part of the rhetoric that defends Buddhism against its constant Chinese critics. (Story Link)
Scenes of hell figure in a few films and operas. But allusions to hell figure in many more. For example, in a recent film, flashes of a past life haunt the heroine because she did not drink her allotted amount of Grandmother Mèng's 孟 elixir of forgetfulness in the tenth court. In another, spirits refuse to leave the land of the living because they fear the judgment that awaits them if they do, and they are therefore easily recruited to a troublesome band of rogue ghosts.
The representation of hell in paintings and temple statuary has been studied by Ann S. Goodrich (1981) and in the catalogs of at least two art exhibits (Hé et al. 1984, Donnelly, 1990). Some descriptions can be found in XIXth- and early XXth-century descriptions of Chinese folk life. As far as I know, nobody has studied the representations of hell found in Chinese popular culture. (The world awaits your book.)
Difficult to portray in art, but prominent in the text, are the many assertions that, with true repentance, deliverance from the torments of the dungeons is possible. It is a theme that is repeated over and over, and a reader has the impression, as the observer of painted representations does not, that despite truly sadistic tortures, sins can in fact be washed away, and that true regret for one's prior sins is all that is needed.
The theme of redemption and salvation seems to be slightly more central in ballad songs about hell (which have attracted no academic attention so far as I know). The three pictures below are covers from phonograph records of "hell ballads" from Taiwan in the 1970s. The two on the left (sung in long series of rhymed couplets), while clearly referencing hell, tend to stress moral models to be imitated to avoid hell rather than dwelling on its torments. (The third one simply describes the ten courts.)
|Three phonograph records of "hell ballads" (Taiwan, 1970s)|
Return to top.
The Chinese text as presented here was gratefully downloaded from a now vanished anonymous Internet site in simplified characters, from which it was then corrected and revised to agree with several booklets in traditional characters picked up in temples in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Where there were occasional (rare) disagreements, my authority was RSBJ 2007 (despite the different title). The text and translation here make up pp.49-119 of that text. (For a link to an electronic version of the full book, see the note attached to RSBJ 2007 in the sources listed below.)
I believe this makes the text presented here about as close as one is going to get to a standard modern version. (Some characters are not available in computer type fonts and I have described them in notes. Most internet sources make relatively self-evident and benign substitutions instead.)
It was my original intention to use the translation by Herbert Giles, provided as an appendix to his translation of Pú Sōnglíng's 蒲松龄 work, Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (Liáozhāi Zhìyì 聊斋志异) (Giles 1916). Beside it I planned to display the Chinese text. However it became obvious that Giles was working from a slightly different version from those circulating today, that he abridged or glossed over many passages (often difficult or "disgusting" ones), that he occasionally made mistakes, and that his century-old English was both quaintly obsolescent and too Ciceronian to align easily to the Chinese original in a bilingual presentation.
Abandoning the idea of simply reproducing Giles' rendering, I dismantled and reassembled it, making drastic revisions, seeking to account for all of the Chinese text possible and to make it useful to modern students of traditional Chinese culture or of Chinese language. I have preserved phrases and sentences of his rendering now and again, but almost none of it survives intact. I doubt he would approve of the result, although it would be an exaggeration for me to claim that this is an entirely new translation.
After this material was placed on the web site and used in classes, a French edition with well printed Chinese and French on facing pages was published in a volume of Chinese planchette-written morality texts (Goossaert 2012: 105-185). I have not tried to resolve ambiguities in the text here by reference to the new French edition.
As elsewhere on this web site, traditional characters are blue and simplified characters are red.
Return to top.
Print this page.
Go to next file.