Zhong Kui

We are getting into Autumn and that means blog posts about ghosts, spirits, monsters, and the supernatural. Why don’t we start out in a big way with Zhong Kui, a king of the underworld.

Zhong Kui was a ghost, and he was tasked with hunting ghosts…and he commanded an army of 80,000 ghosts. To find out how he managed to end up in this ridiculous position, it is necessary to take into account the tension between meritocracy and autocracy. In ancient China, the official imperial exams were the gateway to highly esteemed civil service jobs and official advancement. Although he was infamously ugly, Zhong Cui was a devoted scholar. He studied long and hard to master all of the disciplines which would be on the statewide exams, and his hard work paid off. After traveling to the capital to take the great exam, he came in first in all of China…a surefire path to honors and high office!

Zhong Kui, the Scholar (Ren Yi, 1883) Ink on Silk

Unfortunately, the Emperor of China in Zhong Kui’s day was vain, stupid, superficial, and capricious. When the emperor saw how ugly the top-scoring student was, he declared the outcome was invalid. Zhong Cui was stripped of his rightful title of “Zhuangyuan” (top-scorer) and tossed out of the imperial city in derision. Enraged by the corrupt nature of society, Zhong Cui furiously rushed against the city gates and dashed out his brains against the great bronze doors. His hometown friend, Du Ping, had Zhong Kui’s remains laid to rest with honor, while Zhong Kui’s spirit made its way down the long road to Diyu, the black mansion, aka Chinese hell.

Zhong Kui Brooding (Min Zhen,1776) ink on silk

In China, suicide is accounted a sin. If all unhappy people killed themselves, the world would be empty and the serenity of the universe would be imperiled. This put Lord Yama, the emperor and judge of the underworld in a bind. Unlike the vainglorious mortal emperor of China, Yama was a shrewd judge of character (you have to be, to be the ruler of hell) and he saw great potential in Zhong Kui. Yet at the same time, the scholar had literally thrown his life away…and gravely profaned one of the sacred rules of existence. What was to be done?

Zhong Kui Keeping the Hungry Ghosts At Bay (Contemporary)

And thus Yama decided on the perfect punishment/reward: he elevated Zhong Kui to be a colleague. The pleasures of the world and of heaven would never belong to the ugly scholar, but in the end he did end up with a prestigious official rank–as one of the thirteen kings of the underworld. Zhong Kui was given an army of 80,000 subordinate ghosts and a mandate to hunt down unruly specters and monsters (and probably some cool magic and supernatural powers too).

Zhong Kui

He traveled back to his home village and arranged for his sister to be married to his faithful friend Du Ping and then he began hunting down malicious spirits. Since malevolent ghosts (and crooked autocrats) are endemic to all eras, Zhong Kui is still busy at his task, but the rest of China has finally come to appreciate his worth and he is revered as a guardian deity.