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To celebrate getting through tax day last week, I am writing about Diyu, the Chinese underworld. Although it shares many features with other underworlds (torture, damned souls, and animal headed monstrosities), the “Dark Mansion” is truly hellish because of its sprawling bureaucracy. Featuring baffling rules, repeated performance evaluations, multiple redundant authorities, and numerous different levels with obscure links to one another, Chinese hell will be instantly familiar to all office workers.
Although upright souls can be reborn after death or proceed to paradise (or even find immortality and apotheosize to godhood!), the average sinful person must make their way through the different levels of the afterlife by petitioning officials and serving time in various torture chambers. Fortunately, the authorities of the Chinese afterlife are extremely venal. Influence can be bought (and progress towards rebirth can be earned) for “hell dollars” which are burned by pious relatives on earth.
My favorite Chinese underworld story comes from Journey to the West, an epic poem from the Ming Dynasty. It features Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty, one of China’s most powerful and gifted rulers with his own fascinating (real) history. The mythical story of his journey to the underworld begins when Emperor Taizong falls sick due to a magical illness. This mortal sickness was visited upon the Emperor by the ghost of a powerful river dragon who nursed a grievance. Fortunately one of Emperor Taizong’s courtiers was friends with an underworld official Cui Jue. When Emperor Taizang died from the ghost dragon’s curse, the courtier sent a letter to the underworld official who in turn used his influence to allow Emperor Taizong to make a tour of hell and then return to the world of the living. As a result of his trip, which brought spiritual and karmic debts, Emperor Taizang was forced to commission the “journey to the west” undertaken by a virtuous monk and his 4 disciples which is of course the true subject of the epic. The Emperor’s journey and a more complete recounting of the events surrounding it can be found at this wonderful site.
The Chinese deities of Hell are like the powerful people of this world, trading favors for political and financial gain. A devout Chinese Taoist who has lived a less than blameless life can expect to be the plaything of officialdom throughout this life and for many, many lifetimes to come.
*Forgive me for simplifying the tangled mythological/political web of eastern beliefs and for mangling the Chinese words and names in this article.