KL Yong earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.
The Chinese Ten Courts of Hell (十殿阎罗)
The concept of hell existed in many civilizations since antiquity. It might not always have been called that name, but the notion of lifelong evil resulting in horrific punishments after death has long been around. For equally as long, most humans have also been kept in line by fear of ghastly, eternal torment after death
The Chinese have a distinct vision of hell too. Although, even among the Chinese, what exactly “hell” constitutes is often debated.
This is caused by the two commonest names for the Chinese version of hell being contradictory. Sometimes it is 十八层地狱 (shi ba cen di yu), or the Eighteen Layers of Hell. Other times, it is 十殿阎罗 (shidian yan luo), or the Ten Courts of Hell.
In addition to these two titles are also the more lyrical names for the Chinese underworld, such like 地狱 (di yu), 黄泉 (huang quan) or 九幽 (jiu you). The more one researches, the more confusing it gets. The situation is made worse by how the names are frequently interchangeable.
Whichever name or version, though, there is no shortage of gruesome punishment in Chinese depictions of the afterworld. Freezing caverns, dismemberment racks, dagger pits, all are there, and more.
In this article, we take a look at the Ten Courts of Hell version. Like Dante’s Inferno, wrongdoings in mortal life result in very specific punishments here. The Ten Courts of Hell, in turn, are overseen by ten esteemed and feared judges/kings of the dead.
Visiting the Ten Courts of Hell
In his story, Dante Alighieri went through some pretty arduous experiences before reaching Hell. Luckily for us, the Chinese Ten Courts of Hell is far easier to visit. A version conveniently exists in the south of Singapore, at the heart of a largely ignored statue park named Haw Par Villa.
Once a top tourist attraction of the island nation in the 70s, Haw Par Villa is nowadays a deserted, somewhat rundown, and absolutely macabre spot free for all to enter. This desolation, in turn, greatly adds to the ambiance of its key attraction. The latter being that of a gloomy man-made cave depicting the gruesome Chinese Ten Courts of Hell, apt named as Hell’s Museum.
Note: Haw Par Villa doesn’t completely follow what’s denoted in Taoist or Buddhist text. It is more of a dramatized interpretation of the Ten Courts of Hell based on Chinese folklore.
Court 1: The Court of King Qinguang (秦廣王)
The entire Chinese Ten Courts of Hell is an embodiment of justice and fairness. Therefore, no punishment is meted out in the Chinese underworld without meticulous examination of records, a task performed by the court of King Qinguang.
Somewhat like Minos in Dante’s Inferno, King Qinguang differentiates the good from the evil by rigorously assessing past deeds. The good and virtuous then cross over a golden or silver bridge to reach paradise, while the wicked are dragged to face a magical mirror to confirm their sins.
Upon confirmation of evil, imps lead the wicked to the other courts to receive appropriate punishment. Note that King Qinguang's first court of hell does not execute any punishment. The king’s task is merely to sort the good from the evil.
Court 2: The Court of King Chujiang (楚江王)
Things begin to get hellish in the expanses of King Chujiang's court, no pun intended. Robbers and the physically violent are shoved into volcanic streams to be burned alive. Corrupted officers, burglars, and compulsive gamblers are thrown into an icy cavern to suffer freezing torment.
For those guilty of defilement of sacred places such as religious institutions, eternal drowning punishment awaits in the vast Pool of Defiled Blood.
A curiosity here. The concept of a large “pool of blood” in hell exists in other cultures too. For example, in Dante’s Inferno. Is this pure coincidence? Or perhaps it is a hint at actual existence? Best be careful with your conduct in sacred places from now on.
Court 3: The Court of King Songdi (宋帝王)
King Chujiang’s court gives the impression of being massive, containing within it volcanoes, icy caverns, and an immense pool of blood. In comparison, King Songdi’s third court feels far much smaller, with punishments executed right before his disapproving glare.
Here, the ungrateful, the disrespectful, and those who had escaped from prison are punished by having their hearts ripped out by gleeful imps. Next to them, drug addicts, drug traffickers, tomb robbers, and unrest inciters are chained to red-hot copper pillars to be grilled alive.
For your information, the hot pillar torture, known as pao luo (炮烙), is a legendary Chinese punishment featured in many older Chinese movies, particularly those about the hated Di Xin of the Shang Dynasty. It is unclear which inspired which, or whether such gruesome punishment even existed in Ancient China.
Court 4: The Court of King Wuguan (五官王)
Based on his portfolio, King Wuguan appears to be the patron god of all taxmen and business investors. He owns a huge mortar, in which tax dodgers, rent dodgers, and business crooks are pounded to bits by spiky pestles.
Other than the mortar, the feared king also has an immense grindstone. This is reserved for those who were not filial to their parents or were disrespectful to siblings.
The City of Unnatural Death, wangsi cheng (枉死城), is within King Wuguan’s court too. This walled city accommodates those who died unnaturally or unjustly, so that they can view the sufferings of their enemies before proceeding to their own punishments or reincarnation.
Like the Pool of Defiled Blood, the concept of a city in the middle of hell exists in other cultures too. Again, just a coincidence? Or …
Court 5: The Court of King Yanluo (阎罗王)
King Yanluo’s court is in the middle of the Chinese Ten Courts of Hell. It is thus befitting that the fifth court of Chinese hell deals with the root of mankind’s evils. Money.
There is only one punishment here. That of a mountain of knives. (Dao shan, 刀山) Thrown onto this spiky elevation are those who had plotted for money or the death of others. Loansharks, legal or otherwise, suffer the same fate too.
Of note, King Yanluo’s title is frequently used by the Chinese to refer to hell in general. The Chinese Ten Courts of Hell itself is called shi dian yanluo (十殿阎罗). What brought about this? Most likely it’s because “yanluo” is the Chinese pronunciation of Yama i.e. the Vedic/Buddhist Lord of the Underworld.
Court 6: The Court of King Biancheng (汴诚王)
Don’t be shocked. The sixth court punishes those who have indulged in pornography. Yes, down you go, to be sawn in half, if you have owned just one piece of pornography.
Punished in the same way are also those who have misused books, broken laws, or have wasted food. Finally, cheaters, foul-mouth individuals, and kidnappers are left skewered on a hellish tree of knives. They watch balefully as those to be sawn plead for mercy. All know, though, that there is to be no mercy in the Chinese underworld.
Court 7: The Court of King Taishan (泰山王)
The seventh court of Chinese hell deals with those who were wicked in words. Liars, rumormongers, and gossipers have their tongues slowly tugged out and clipped away by imps.
Next to them, rapists, conspirators for rape, and those who have forced others to their death are boiled in oil. This strange combination of punishments makes one wonder what the imps do with the tongues after removing them. Do they boil and feast on these tongues at the end of each day? Such a question is best left unanswered.
Court 8: The Court of King Dushi (都市王)
The Chinese, like most East Asians, place a lot of emphasis on filial piety. So it is not surprising that those who have neglected their parents are considered deserving of punishment in the Ten Courts of Hell.
Tied to racks, these sinners have their abdomens split and their intestines pulled out. While this happens, those who have harmed others to benefit themselves are chopped into pieces. Of note, those who have caused “trouble” for their parents and families, or who have cheated during examinations, are also punished with abdomen splitting. In Ancient China, cheating during examinations was considered a terrible dishonor to one’s family.
In summary, the Court of King Dushi sounds akin to medieval butchery. One gets the feeling that this is a gory metaphor stating that those who are conniving and dishonorable are downright pigs. Do you agree with this likening?
Court 9: The Court of King Pingdeng (平等王)
Under mortal laws, criminals who have served their sentences are considered redeemed
Not so in the Chinese Ten Courts of Hell, though. Robbers, murderers, rapists, etc, continued to be punished by being stripped and dismembered.
Even those with no criminal sentences but are guilty of neglecting the old and weak are punished, by being slowly crushed under massive boulders. The short of it, the Court of King Pingdeng teaches all to treat others the way you hope for them to treat you. No aggression, no oblivion too. “Pingdeng” means equality in Chinese.
Court 10: The Court of King Lunhui (轮回王)
Punishment in hell formally ends in the final court. There is no punishment here and souls brought before King Lunhui are considered redeemed and ready for reincarnation.
Under the laws of karma, evildoers are reincarnated as animals and beasts too, while the less guilty return as humans doomed to suffer tragic lives.
Every reincarnation, in turn, is a part of the everlasting cycle of karma. Every single act is also balanced by a consequence or result. The Ten Courts of Hell is itself part of that eternal cycle.
Notably, before reincarnation, all souls drink the soup of Granny Meng (孟婆汤), a magical potion that erases all memories of past lives.
Regarding this soup, many romantic Chinese legends have been written about it over the years. Chinese stories and movies also continue to use the trope of lovers remembering each other after reincarnation because they somehow avoided drinking the soup.
Going by that, if you encounter somebody who feels mysteriously familiar, the Chinese belief is that you were likely related during your previous lives, and that Granny Meng’s soup didn’t fully work on you for one reason or another.
What’s to make of this? Who knows? Perhaps you were indeed lovers. Or maybe you were friends. Or maybe you were just fellow doomed souls, who went through the same horrific punishment in one of the Chinese Ten Courts of Hell.
Appendix: The Ten Kings of Chinese Hell
What fascinates me most about the Chinese Ten Courts of Hell has always been the titles of the ten kings. Note that King “Qinguang” is a title. It’s not a name.
If you read Chinese, you’d notice right away that many of the titles are obvious references to famous Chinese personalities, historical events, or places. For the benefit of those who do not read Chinese, here are rough translations of the titles.
Expansive Qin. “Qin” here the same character as that for the Qin dynasty. The ancient Chinese dynasty that united China.
River Chu. A poetic term often used to refer to the Battle of Wei River, which led to the formation of the Han dynasty.
Song Emperor. Song was the title of a major Chinese dynasty. The one destroyed by the Mongolians.
Five features. A metaphor for the five senses.
Another name for the underground. As elaborated upon above.
City of Bian. This title likely refers to Bian Liang (汴梁), one of the ancient capitals of China.
Mount Tai. The most famous and holiest of the Five Chinese Taoist Mountains.
City. Du shi simply means city. Or metropolis.
What are the origins of these titles? English Wikipedia states that the whole concept of the Ten Courts of Hell began after Chinese folk religions were influenced by Buddhism. This is obvious since reincarnation is a key Buddhism concept. However, that does not explain how the titles came about.
Chinese websites have much more information on who the respective kings are, such as King Yanluo being the deified version of the famous Justice Bao. But again, there’s scant information on how the titles were chosen. Whatever information is available is also either contradictory or implausible.
Questions & Answers
Question: Which years or century did China's 10 courts exist?
Answer: This version of the 10 courts is most likely an accumulation of culture and beliefs over many centuries. But given Justice Bao is one of the 10 kings, I guess we can say it is no earlier than the Northern Song Dynasty. (AD 960 - 1127)
Question: Is there any way you can beg and pray for forgiveness before you die to avoid the ten courts of hell?
Answer: Scammers will tell you to pay for elaborate rituals and the likes of to redeem yourself. But in classic Buddhist, Taoist, or just Chinese culture, repenting and doing good is the right way to go.
Which then means only repenting at one's death bed is way, WAY too late.
Question: Is there a chamber of eye gouging?
Answer: No, not at the Haw Par Villa attraction, nor are there in any movies or books, etc., either.
© 2016 Yong Kuan Leong