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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.

As noted in several previous blog posts, the Chinese underworld, Diyu, is simultaneously a place of vicious physical tortures AND a particularly nasty and intractable bureaucracy. King Yama presides over this hellish realm assisted by the merciless judge Qin-Guang-Wang who determines how long damned souls must suffer in order to pay off their karmic debts.  Yet, in addition to these big names, there are also many other lesser bailiffs, beadles, demons, ghouls, guards, and torturers who work for the system.  Perhaps the most recognizable of these henchmen (or henchbeings) are the animal-headed duo of Horse Face and Ox Head.  Known together as the Niútóumǎmiàn, Horse Face and Ox Head are the principle bailiffs at the first room of Diyu–the dreadful Hall of Retribution, where initial judgement is meted out to newly dead souls.

Horse Face and Ox Head in the Hall of Retribution

Like Cerberus in Greek mythology, these two immortal demons are the first & worst jailors of the dark realm and act as heavies on behalf of the rulers of the underworld.  Their tasks include  manhandling intractable souls before Diyu’s bench, throwing combative souls into deeper pits of torment, and pursuing would-be escapees.  Horse Face and Ox Head lack human compunctions and mercies, but, crucially, they also lack human guile and can thus be tricked.

I guess it is good to enjoy your work.

In The Journey to the West, the most abstruse and fantastical of the Four Great Classical Epics of Chinese Literature, Horse Face and Ox Head (or legions of Horse Faces and Ox Heads) are outwitted by Sun Wukong, the beloved monkey trickster deity, who then erases his own name and the names of all of his monkey subjects from the annals of death.  Having thus ensured immortality for himself and his simian followers, Sun Wukong proceeds onward to wreak chaos elsewhere.

Most of the visitors to Diyu were not so fortunate, strong, and clever as the Monkey King and were easily dealt with by the formidable doormen of Diyu.  In Japan the duo are known as Gozu-Mezu.  They are also part of the afterworld in various cultures around China like Singapore and Thailand.  For all of their popularity in visual art, there is remarkably little information about the lore and backstory of Horse Face and Ox Head.  It seems that nobody really pays much attention to bailiffs, even when they are immortal animal-headed demons guarding hell itself!

Aww…poor little guys…

This week has featured posts about quolls, the quincunx, quince trees, and qiviut.  For a last q-theme post, I thought about revisiting the lovely quilin, the Chinese unicorn, but I decided that that would be too easy. To round off the week properly we must undertake a grim and harrowing journey of imagination. We need to go back to the dark mansion–once more we must descend to Diyu, Chinese hell.

How do we keep ending up here?

As explicated in my previous post, Diyu was the Chinese afterlife for souls that lived less than exemplary lives (i.e. just about everyone).  The edifice was imagined as a gigantic maze with many different chambers presided over by different competing authorities.  As souls worked (or bribed) their way out of one awful torture chamber they were whisked to a new one until, eventually, their karmic slate was clean and they were ready to be reborn back into the living world.

Qin-Guang-Wang

The ruler of all hell was King Yama also known as Yen-lo-Wang (a god adapted from Yama, the Hindu death god, who merits his own post) many other potentates, gods, and spirits inhabit Diyu.  Yama was once the judge of hell as well as its ruler, but he was found to be too lenient and was replaced as magistrate by Qin-Guang-Wang a much less merciful underworld deity.  Qin-Guang-Wang presided over the first room of Hell where the magic mirror of retribution stood.  This mirror replayed every single part of a person’s life in agonizing detail.  Once Qin-Guang-Wang had watched this pitiless evidence he sent the spirit on to the proper destination.  In all eternity he has only sent a handful of souls over the golden bridge to the perfect happiness of western paradise.  A few more souls are allowed to cross the silver bridge which leads to the seedy and disreputable but still comfortable southern paradise. Everyone else is sent deeper into the dark mansion to report for centuries of disemboweling, flaying, boiling, impaling, roasting, crushing, skinning, and so forth.

Of course everyone–beast, human, god, demon, or even inanimate object—has a backstory in Chinese mythology and the ruthless Qin-Guang-Wang is no exception.  According to myth he was once King Jiang of Qinguang, a warrior and martinet whose inflexible interpretation of rules and personal cruelty were peerless.  The court of heaven noted his talents, promoted him to deity, and now he does what he loves for eternity.


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.

"You've filled out a section incorrectly. Report dowstairs for boiling."

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.

"This system works really well."

*Forgive me for simplifying the tangled mythological/political web of eastern beliefs and for mangling the Chinese words and names in this article.

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