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As we anticipate the start of the Hungry Ghost Festival this coming Sunday, there’s no better time than the present to discuss the ghostly concept of hell in Chinese culture. The idea of hell is not a linear one, as it is an amalgamation of Naraka—the Buddhist concept of purgatory—and beliefs about the afterlife through the Chinese worldview, filtered through thousands of years’ worth of interpretations. Here is a little guide to the subterranean horrors that await sinners in Chinese hell. Trigger warning: Mild gore ahead!
Buddhism and Taoism—the main religions of China—both have different interpretations of hell and how it is structured, but what they can both agree on is this: Sinners who accumulate bad karma during their lives have to atone for their sins after their death. Their souls are therefore taken into hell, a fiery place consisting of several layers, courts, or circles, each doling out a different punishment for specific sins.
A big difference between the Chinese hell and the concept of hell most known in Christianity is that in Chinese hell, souls are not necessarily condemned to eternal damnation. While broadly believed in Western culture that sinners have to suffer in hell until the second coming of Christ, the Chinese version of hell is more of a purgatory, where souls are able to eventually leave and be reincarnated back into the world once they have done their time.
The Chinese call this Dei6 Juk6 (地獄). Some other euphemistic synonyms for hell include “Yellow Springs” (黄泉; Wong4 Cyun4), “Underworld Mansion” (地府; Dei6 Fu2), or “Nine Springs” (九泉; Gau2 Gyun4).
Influenced by Buddhist ideas being absorbed into Chinese folk religion, the concept of the “10 courts of hell” was created. Similar to how Zeus appointed Hades as the guardian of the underworld in Greek mythology, the Jade Emperor put Yama in charge of hell. As legend has it, there are 12,800 hells located under the earth, but under Yama’s rule, this was reduced to a nice round number of 10, each overseen by a Yama king. The period of time a soul spends in hell depends on the severity of their sins, and Yama makes the final call as to when they will pass from each stage, eventually being sent for reincarnation after being punished for long enough.
It was in the Tang dynasty when the more popular concept of the “18 levels of hell” came to be, circulated by the Buddhist text Sutra on Questions about Hell, which mentioned 134 worlds of hell that were then simplified to a total of 18 for convenience. Each of the 18 levels contains a specific method of torture for a specific sin.
The souls of sinners are able to feel pain just like living humans, but cannot die again from their ordeals. Their beings are simply restored back to their original state, for the torture to start all over again in a cycle of anguish.
The first sight that deceased souls are greeted by are two mythological creatures known as Ox-Head (牛頭) and Horse-Face (馬面), the guardians of the underworld. As the name might suggest, they both have the bodies of men topped with the heads of an ox and a horse, respectively. Apart from just guarding the gates, the pair are also charged with the duty of capturing human souls that have reached the end of their earthly existence and bringing them before the courts of hell to be judged. There have been cases where Chinese people who went through near-death experiences have claimed to glimpse Ox-Head and Horse-Face!
If a soul passes the stage of judgement and is deemed good enough to not be punished for their earthly deeds, they can head straight to being reincarnated again into the earthly cycle, or—in some rare cases—achieve enlightenment and not have to go through human life cycles again.
The majority of souls will have something to repent for, and so are sent down to the 18 levels of hell, where they might go to each stage to pay for all 18 types of sins, or only have to spend their punishment in one level before being able to move on. A breakdown of the levels is as follows.
Because of these levels of hell, there is a popular Chinese saying: “上刀山、落油鑊” (soeng5 dou1 san1, lok6 jau4 wok6). It means “to go through hell or high water”—though the literal meaning is to “climb the knife mountain, and go into the oil cauldron,” a clear reference to two levels of the underworld.
If you’re reeling at the thought of having hellfire shoved down your throat simply because you tend not to finish your portion of Hainanese chicken rice over lunch, well, we’re sweating slightly, too! Hold on to your horses, though—there is one last level left, reserved for souls who have committed one of the Five Grave Offences.
These are patricide, matricide, the intentional shedding of blood of a Buddha, the killing of an enlightened being, and disrupting a Buddhist monk or nun from gaining enlightenment. Those who have committed any of these transgressions in life are relegated to undergoing endless torture in the section of hell called Avici. There is no intermission and no light at the end of the tunnel for the anguish, no matter how loudly the fat lady might sing.
After souls have had their sins and transgressions burned, crushed, and sliced out of them for indeterminable periods of time, they are finally allowed to begin the process of being reincarnated back into the world.
In the Buddhist faith, life is simply part of the journey to attaining enlightenment. Beings have to go through multiple cycles of life, death, purgatory, and rebirth in order to be cleansed of all accumulated bad karma and gain enough good karma to attain this highest state of being.
Souls who are deemed ready to go back into the world are first required to face a mythical old lady called Meng Po (孟婆)—or Granny Meng. She is the goddess of forgetfulness and is in charge of preparing the Broth of Oblivion, stewed using various herbs and plants, which will wipe the soul of their memories of their previous life and their experiences in hell. Purged of all their previous knowledge and sins, the soul then crosses the Bridge of Forgetfulness and gets reborn into a new earthly incarnation to begin the cycle all over again.
Because of this myth, there have been Chinese legends of babies being able to speak, or children seemingly wise beyond their years with inexplicably begotten knowledge—in such cases, it is said that the soul within them didn’t drink or didn’t finish the entire portion of magical brew, thereby retaining memories from past lives.
As horrifying as this all undoubtedly sounds, it’s important to remember that the Chinese cultural concept of hell—along with any other such religious concepts—was created to instil in people values that were considered proper and conducive to society. So the next time you feel the urge to gossip about someone annoying, you might just catch yourself thinking twice before indulging in what you think might be a harmless pastime!