What Are China's Horrific Ten Courts of Hell?
The Ten Courts of Hell (十殿阎罗)
The concept of hell has existed in many civilisations since antiquity. It might not always have been called that name, but the notion of evil resulting in horrific punishment after death has long been around. For equally as long, humans have also been kept in line by fear of such eternal torment after death
The Chinese have a distinct vision of hell too. Although, even among the Chinese, what exactly “hell” constitutes could be contradictory. This is caused by the two commonest names for the Chinese version of hell. Sometimes it is 十八层地狱 (shi ba cen di yu), or the Eighteen Levels 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, such like 黄泉 (huang quan) or 九幽 (jiu yuu). 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. Freezing caverns, dismemberment racks, dagger pits, all are there. 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 punishment here. The Ten Courts in turn are overseen by ten esteemed and feared judges / kings of the dead.
Going to 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, in 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 greatly adds to the ambience of its key attraction. That of a gloomy man-made cave presenting the Chinese Ten Courts of Hell.
Note: Haw Par Villa doesn’t completely follow what’s denoted in Taoist or Buddhist text. It is more of a folkloric interpretation of the Ten Courts of Hell.
Court 1: The Court of King Qinguang (秦廣王)
The whole of the Chinese Ten Courts of Hell is an embodiment of justice and fairness. Therefore, no punishment is sentenced without 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 court itself does not execute any punishment. Its job is merely to sort the good from the evil.
Court 2: The Court of King Chujiang (楚江王)
Things begin to get horrific in the expanses of King Chujiang's court. 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 buildings and schools, eternal drowning punishment awaits in the vast Pool of Defiled Blood. An observation here. The concept of a large “pool of blood” in hell exists in other cultures too. For example, in Dante’s Inferno. Is this purely coincidence? Or perhaps it is a hint at actual existence? Best be careful with your conduct at 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, with volcanos, icy caverns and an immense pool of blood. In comparison, King Songdi’s court feels far 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 locked to red hot copper pillars to be grilled alive. For your information, the hot pillar treatment, pao luo (炮烙), is a legendary Chinese punishment featured in many older Chinese movies. It is unknown which inspired which.
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 this, he 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 also in King Wuguan’s court. 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 Filthy 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 roughly in the middle of Chinese Ten Courts of Hell. It is thus befitting that King Yanluo deals with the root of mankind’s evils. Money.
There is one common punishment for all here. That of a mountain of knifes. (Dao shan, 刀山) Thrown onto this spiky elevation are those who had plotted for the death or money of others. Loansharks, legal or otherwise, suffer the same fate too.
Something interesting to note here is that 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? My guess is that it has something to do with “yanluo” being the Chinese pronunciation of Yama, the Vedic 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 even just one piece of pornography. Punished in the same way are also those who have misused books, broken laws, or 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 hell.
Court 7: The Court of King Taishan (泰山王)
The Court of King Taishan deals with those who are wicked in words. Liars, rumourmongers, 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 deaths are boiled in oil. This strange combination of punishments makes one wonder what the imps do with the tongues after removing them. Perhaps they boil and feast on them at the end of the day.
Court 8: The Court of King Dushi (都市王)
The Chinese, like most Asians, place a lot of emphasis on filial piety. So it is not surprising that those who have neglected their parents are condemned as 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 to 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 dishonour to one’s family.
In summary, the Court of King Dushi sounds akin to medieval butchery. One gets the feeling that this is gory metaphor stating that those who are conniving and dishonourable to families are downright pigs. Personally, I would agree with such a statement.
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 Ten Courts of Hell. Robbers, murderers, rapists, etc, continue their punishments here by being stripped and dismembered. Even those with no criminal sentences, but are guilty of neglecting the old and weak, are punished too, 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” itself means equality in Chinese.
Court 10: The Court of King Lunhui (轮回王)
Punishment in hell concludes here. Souls brought before King Lunhui are considered mostly redeemed and ready for reincarnation. Under the laws of karma, evildoers are reincarnated into animals and beasts. Some might still be reincarnated into humans, but only as humans doomed to suffer tragic lives. All is part of the everlasting cycle of karma. Every single act is balanced by a consequence or result. The Ten Courts of Hell is itself part of that eternal cycle.
Before reincarnation, souls drink the soup of Granny Meng (孟婆汤), a magical potion that erases all memories of the past life. Regarding this soup, many romantic tales have been written about it over the years. Chinese stories and movies continue to use the trope of lovers remembering each other in the next life, because they somehow avoided drinking the soup. Going by that, if you ever feel that a stranger is mysteriously familiar, it means you were related in previous lives. Perhaps Granny Meng’s soup didn’t work on you. Or maybe you avoided drinking it wholly. What’s to make of it? Who knows? Maybe you were lovers. Or you were friends. Or maybe you were just fellow doomed souls, who went through the horrific punishment together in one of the Ten Courts of Hell.
Appendix: The Ten Kings of Chinese Hell
What fascinate me most about the Chinese Ten Courts of Hell has always been the titles of the ten kings. Note, 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 for the Qin dynasty. The one 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 that was destroyed by the Mongolians.
Five features. Or the five senses.
Yan Luo. As elaborated 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 concept in Buddhism. But this does not explain how the titles were chosen.
Chinese sites 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 no information on how the titles were chosen. If you happen to have any information about the origin of these titles, please do comment below. I’m quite curious to know.