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Chinese Gods of Hell: An Introduction and Listing (2023 Edition)

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Chinese Gods of Hell – a glossary of names and duties.

Chinese Gods of Hell – a glossary of names and duties.

The Chinese Underworld

The Chinese concept of Hell, or diyu (地狱), is easy to understand but tough to explore.

Like the Christian underworld, the Chinese “earthly prison” is a place of great torment for sinners and evil souls. It is also managed by an army of fearsome hell gods, some of which have truly terrifying appearances.

The origins of such Chinese hell gods are, however, hard to pinpoint. While some deities are clearly Buddhist or Taoist in origin, many others have murky folkloric roots. Several are also historical or cultural heroes who were deified.

Regardless of origins, though, Chinese Gods of Hell count among the most feared deities in Chinese culture and worship. You will rarely if at all, find any Chinese bearing amulets or charms of them.

For to meet any is not just the equivalent of death, it is also the possibility of eternal suffering.

Update: 2023 Edition

  • This version focuses on:
  • Adding more information to most entries.
  • Expanding the section on the Chinese rulers of hell.
  • Addressing the question of “who is the true ruler of the Chinese underworld.”
  • The inclusion of several lesser-known Chinese hell deities.
An otherworld, underground shrine to Yanluo Wang.

An otherworld, underground shrine to Yanluo Wang.

The Rulers of Chinese Hell

The concept of the “King of Hell” in Chinese Buddhism, Taoism, or Chinese folkloric beliefs is markedly different from Western beliefs in several ways. To begin with, Chinese rulers of hell are neither evil gods nor responsible for any evil-doing in the mortal world. They are also not demons.

While hailed as sovereigns and high-ranking in the divine pantheon, none are supreme deities too. All Chinese Gods of Hell report to the Court of Heaven. The latter is the true highest divine authority in Chinese beliefs.

  1. Diguan Dadi (地官大帝): The “Earthly Officer.” Diguan is the second of the Sanguan (三官), three godly officials responsible for reporting the affairs of the mortal world to the Heavenly Court. As the official of the great earth and the netherworld, and the leader of all mountain and earthly gods, Diguan is believed to be capable of absolving human sins and determining the destiny of humans.His birthday also falls on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month and in Chinese culture, this date is celebrated as Zhongyuan Jie, i.e., the famous Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival. Some traditions furthermore view the mythical emperor Shun (舜) as an avatar of Diguan.
  2. Dongyue Dadi (东岳大帝): The “Great Emperor of the East Peak” is the deified form Mount Tai (泰山), the most religiously important peak of the Five Sacred Mountains of China. He is viewed as having authority over human destiny and the netherworld, and during imperial times, offering prayers at Mount Tai was considered a must for new emperors. Ancient texts such as the Fengsu Tongyi (风俗通义) furthermore describe Mount Tai as the elder of all mountains while the Baihu Tongyi (白虎通义) stated the “East” has authority over life and death—Mount Tai is the Eastern Peak of the Five Sacred Mountains. Lastly, Chinese compendiums have different stories regarding the identity of Dongyue Dadi. The Zhenzhong Shu (枕中书) claims he is the ancient mythical emperor Taihao (太昊), while Lidai Shenxian Tongjian (历代神仙通鉴) states he is a descendant of Pangu; the Shuyi Ji (速异记), in contrast, describes the god as the head of Pangu. Regardless of origin, Dongyue Dadi is said to be assisted by 75 officers who administer punishment and rewards for souls. Within Chinese Buddhism, Dongyue Dadi is also listed as one of the 24 Protective Deities.
  3. Fengdu Dadi (酆都大帝): The “Great Emperor of Fengdu City” is the highest administrator of the underworld in Taoism. He was originally associated with the North/Northeast, where the gates to the underworld werebelieved to be. The Jin Dynasty compendium Zhenzhong Shu (枕中书) also stated that the god manages his realm at Mount Luofeng (罗酆). During the Song Dynasty, however, Fengdu Dadi “relocated” to the Sichuan City of Fengdu and possibly acquired his current title through this move—Chinese text beyond this era began to describe the god as based in Fengdu. Thanks to this, the actual historical city of Fengdu is today famous for a large complex of temples and shrines dedicated to the afterlife. The complex is also said to be modeled after Youdu (幽都), the capital of the Chinese underworld. Like Dongyue Dadi, Fengdu Dadi is said to be assisted by a large assembly of officers.
  4. Houtu (后土): Houtu is the “Empress of the Earth,” in Chinese beliefs, correspondingly, regarded by some traditions as the supreme authority of hell. One of the Taoist Siyu (四御 | Four Sovereigns), a fertility goddess, a protector of graves, and the leader of all local earth gods, the worship of Houtu during funerary rites probably began because the underworld is associated with the earth. However, such worship is far less common compared to that of Dongyue Dadi, etc.
  5. Yanluo Wang (阎罗王): Yanluo is the Chinese transliterated name for Yama, the Hindu God of Death and the Buddhist administrator of the Narakas. (Naraka is the Buddhist name for hellish places of torment) One of the hardest Chinese hell gods to define for the name could refer to different concepts, “Yanluo Wang” is today used as a convenient reference for any ruler of hell or god of death in Chinese culture. In Taoism and Chinese folklore though, the name could refer to ten or more judges of the dead, with these judges the subordinates of Dongyue Dadi or Fengdu Dadi. Most modern writers consider this transformation of Yama into many judges as the result of assimilation. Whichever version, it is obvious that the Chinese “ten judges of hell” concept was based on the imperial Chinese judiciary.

Who is the Chinese Ruler of Hell?

The simple answer is, there is no definite answer.

Chinese religious beliefs today are curious amalgamations of Buddhism, Taoism, folkloric beliefs, and to an extent, Confucianism. Many popular Chinese gods have different Buddhist and Taoist personas. Within Taoism, there are also different branches of beliefs.

As is obvious, the above-introduced deities have overlapping portfolios too.

In general, however, the various “rulers” of the Chinese underworld could be understood as follows:

  • The veneration of Dongyue Dadi originates from nature and folkloric worship. In other words, from Chinese shamanism.
  • Fengdu Dadi is a Taoist god. However, his worship is not widespread and largely based in Southwestern China where Fengdu city is.
  • Altars to Yanluo Wang are commonly found at both Chinese Buddhist and Taoist rituals during the Chinese Ghost Month.
  • Buddhist funerary rites rarely venerate Yanluo Wang. Instead, Amitabha Buddha or Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha are prayed to.
Though titled in Chinese as kings, the Ten Judges of Chinese Hell are not rulers. Instead, they are responsible for sentencing and punishing wicked souls.

Though titled in Chinese as kings, the Ten Judges of Chinese Hell are not rulers. Instead, they are responsible for sentencing and punishing wicked souls.

The Ten Judges of Hell

The concept of ten judges/kings presiding over ten courts of hell was the result of syncretism between Chinese Buddhist and Taoist beliefs.

Buddhism introduced the concept of Yama, a ruler of the underworld, while folkloric Taoist beliefs describe sinful souls as having to pass through ten courts of judgment. During the early Tang Dynasty, the apocryphal sutra Fo Shuo Shi Wang Jing (佛说十王经; the Buddha Speaks of the Ten Kings) further listed the “official titles” of these judges.

For the unfamiliar, what’s confusing is how there are glaring discrepancies between other classic Chinese texts. While the titles of the Ten Judges are roughly the same, family names, descriptions, and portfolios differ.

The following information is primarily consolidated from the “version” presented in the Song Dynasty Yuli Baozhuan (玉历宝传).

  1. Qinguang Wang (秦广王): The first judge, whose court resides underneath the western ocean, alongside the route leading to the underworld. He does not sentence punishments but instead separates the virtuous from the sinful. (The virtuous then ascend to paradise. Those who are neither head for rebirth). Family name Jiang, with birthday stated as the first day of the second lunar month. Some folkloric beliefs further identify him as Jiang Ziwen (蒋子文), an Eastern Han Dynasty official who died while suppressing an insurrection.
  2. Chujiang Wang (楚江王): The second judge, whose court resides underneath the ocean in the south. He governs the Sañjīva Naraka and is responsible for punishing swindlers and violent criminals, etc. Family name Li, with birthday stated as the first day of the third lunar month.
  3. Songdi Wang (宋帝王): The third judge, whose court resides underneath the ocean in the southeast. He governs the Kālasūtra Naraka and is responsible for punishing the disrespectful, the untrustworthy, the seditious, and so on. Family name Yu, with birthday stated as the eighth day of the second lunar month.
  4. Wuguan Wang (五官王): The fourth judge, whose court resides underneath the ocean in the east. He governs the Saṃghāta Naraka and is responsible for punishing tax and rent evaders, and scammers, etc. Family name Lü, with birthday stated as the eighteenth day of the second lunar month.
  5. Yanluo Wang (阎罗王): The fifth judge, whose court resides underneath the ocean in the northeast. He governs the Raurava Naraka and is responsible for punishing crimes such as gravedigging, slandering the monastic community, and obstructing worship. Family name Bao, with birthday stated as the eighth day of the first lunar month. Some folkloric beliefs identify Yanluo Wang as Bao Zheng, a much-respected judge and Chinese cultural hero from the Northern Song Dynasty. Within the fifth court is also the “Tower of Home Gazing.” Sinful souls are forced to view the mortal consequences of their actions on this tower before sent for punishment.
  6. Biancheng Wang (卞城王): The sixth judge, whose court resides underneath the ocean in the north. He governs the Mahāraurava Naraka and is responsible for punishing the resentful, those who were disrespectful to heaven, etc. Family name Bi, with birthday stated as the eighth day of the third lunar month.
  7. Taishan Wang (泰山王): The seventh judge, whose court resides underneath the ocean in the northwest. He governs the Tapana Naraka and is responsible for punishing wastrels, those responsible for the separation of families, alchemists who used corpses to make elixirs, etc. Family name Dong, with birthday stated as the twenty-seventh day of the third lunar month.
  8. Dushi Wang (都市王): The eighth judge, whose court resides underneath the ocean in the west. He governs the Pratāpana Naraka and is responsible for punishing those who did not honor their parents and families. Family name Huang, with birthday stated as the first day of the fourth lunar month.
  9. Pingdeng Wang (平等王): The ninth judge, whose court resides underneath the ocean in the southwest. He governs the dreaded Avīci Naraka and is responsible for punishing sinners who have committed the gravest and most violent crimes. Family name Lu, with birthday stated as the eighth day of the fourth lunar month.
  10. Zhuanlun Wang (转轮王): The tenth judge, whose court resides along the eastern route leading out of the Chinese underworld. He does not sentence punishments but instead, oversees reincarnation. Family name Xue, with birthday stated as the seventeenth day of the fourth lunar month.

Family Names

Of note, Yuli Baozhuan was meticulous in its description of the ten courts but did not list the surnames of the various judges. However, many modern publications online or in print attribute the above-mentioned family names. This guide assumes such surnames arose from folkloric traditions.

Major and Minor Hells

Yuli Baozhuan also describes eight of the judges as each being the administrator of a “Great Hell,” this description, corresponding to the Buddhist belief of there being Eight Hot Narakas. These eight judges are also said to each preside over 16 minor hells.

Alternate folkloric beliefs then expanded on the above to describe the same eight judges as each presiding over a Hot Naraka and a Cold Naraka. Such versions are more in line with Buddhist descriptions of the Narakas.

More importantly, in Buddhism, punishments in most of the Narakas are not indefinite. Once a sinful soul has completed a sentence, he/she moves on to the next court. The only exception to this is the Avīci Naraka in the Ninth Court. The sentences here are so long, they are described as akin to eternity.

Shrine to Dizangwang Pusa, i.e., Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva. Some Chinese temples venerate him as Youming Jiaozhu (幽冥教主). The title means “Religious Leader of the Netherworld.”

Shrine to Dizangwang Pusa, i.e., Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva. Some Chinese temples venerate him as Youming Jiaozhu (幽冥教主). The title means “Religious Leader of the Netherworld.”

Saviors of Suffering Souls

Chinese Buddhism and Taoism each have a savior for lost, condemned souls. While physical and religious depictions of these saviors are starkly different, both are prayed to in the same way for alleviation of afterlife suffering.

  1. Dizangwang Pusa (地藏王菩萨): The Chinese Buddhism name for Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva. (Referred to as Jizo in Japan). Always depicted as a monk with a khakkhara staff, Dizangwang is famous for his “great vow” of not attaining Buddhahood till hell is emptied of suffering souls. Some traditions also regard him as the same as Maudgalyayana (Mulian in Chinese), a disciple of Gautama Buddha who strives to save all suffering souls after seeing his mother reincarnated as a hungry ghost. However, in Buddhism, Kṣitigarbha and Maudgalyayana are two separate characters. In Chinese Buddhism culture, Dizangwang is also associated with Mount Jiuhua (九华山).
  2. Taiyi Jiuku Tianzun (太乙救苦天尊): A high-ranking, important Taoist deity who is the savior of all sentient beings. Often invoked during Taoist funeral rituals, Taiyi Jiuku Tianzun is described as an avatar of Lingbao Tianzun (灵宝天尊), one of the three supreme Taoist divinities, and able to manifest himself in any form to lead souls to paradise. He also rides a nine-headed lion and often descends into hell to lead suffering souls out of torment. Notably, the savior is an important secondary character in the Ming Dynasty Chinese fantasy saga, Investiture of the Gods. However, in that story, he has no such salvation role. Taiyi Zhenren (太乙真人) in Investiture of the Gods is purely a powerful immortal.
The “Ox-Head” and “Horse-Face.” These Chinese hell soldiers are known as as Niutou Mamian.

The “Ox-Head” and “Horse-Face.” These Chinese hell soldiers are known as as Niutou Mamian.

Other Chinese Gods of Death and Hell

The following are other notable Chinese gods of the netherworld associated with the afterlife and hell. Many are worshipped together with the above-mentioned gods, especially during funeral rites and Hungry Ghost Festival rituals.

  1. Baobei Ye (包贝爷): Money guardians of hell. There are said to be 12 ye, or lords, and each of them “supervises” a different use of money. The Cai Baobei Ye, for example, is described as a moneylender who loans money to souls to gamble in hell. What happens to souls who can’t settle their debts, though, is unknown. (Note: Cai is a Chinese surname. Other Baobei Ye are identified by different surnames) Baobei Ye are also mostly worshiped in Southeast Asia and there are no mentions of them in Taoist texts.
  2. Bixia Yuanjun (碧霞元君): The daughter of Dongyue Dadi. Her association with Mount Tai, where the court of the netherworld is believed to be, led to her being worshiped as a netherworld goddess too.
  3. Chitou Furen (池头夫人): According to Taoist/folkloric depictions, the palace of Fengdu Dadi is flanked by a vast pool of blood on the left and a city for the unjustly deceased on the right. As unfair as it sounds, women who died during childbirth or were not religiously respectful after giving birth were thrown into the pool of blood. In turn, the pool is supervised by Chitou Furen, or “the madame at the front of the pool.” In texts such as the above-mentioned Yuli Baozhuan, women are encouraged to recite the Xuepan Jing (血盘经) to avoid this fate.
  4. Dongyue Shitaibao (东岳十太保): Ten important ministers/retainers of Dongyue Dadi. All are marshalls and some also double as protectors of the Taoist faith. Like many such Chinese folkloric gods, several ministers are also based on historical figures.
  5. Chenghuang (城隍): Chenghuang were originally worshipped as folkloric gods of moats and walls, and regarded as tutelary deities that protect villages or towns. After the worship of Chenghuang was incorporated into Taoism, however, they became associated with the afterlife too, and are said to be the gods responsible for the proper delivery of souls to the netherworld; in some cases, for the reporting of mortal evil deeds to the officials of hell too. In cities such as Singapore, Chenghuang temples always venerate many other Chinese Gods of Hell and at such temples, it is commonplace to see grisly paintings of afterlife punishments. Lastly, Chenghuang is a title and not a name. Few Chenghuang temples worship the same god too, as the title is “bestowed” on honorable men and ancestors.
  6. Heibai Wuchang (黑白無常): The “Black and White Impermanence.” Among the most famous and worshipped Chinese gods of death, this ghastly duo is responsible for escorting spirits to the underworld; in some cases, also for capturing fleeing souls. Depending on geographical location, details of their attire vary too, but the White Impermanence is always depicted as tall, skinny, and with a long tongue, while the Black Impermanence is orc-like with chains. Lastly, in Southeast Asia, the White Impermanence is venerated as Dalaoye (大老爷), while the Black Impermanence is called Erlaoye (二老爷), i.e., First and Second Master respectively. In Taiwan, however, they are referred to as Qiye Baye (七爷八爷), i.e., Seventh and Eighth Masters. Some traditions furthermore name the White Impermanence as Xie Bi-an (谢必安) and the Black Impermanence as Fan Wujiu (范无救).
  7. Hu Ye (虎爷): The “Tiger Lord” is worshipped as the steed of Chenghuang. At Chenghuang Temples, altars to Hu Ye are usually located beneath the main altar or housed in a man-made cavern outside the main building. Folkloric beliefs also state that Hu Ye is the one to pray to for protection against xiaoren (小人), i.e., vindictive schemers.
  8. Jinjia Yinsuo (金枷银锁): The “Golden Shackle” and “Silver Chain.” Also known as the Shackle and Chain Generals (枷锁将军 | Jiasuo Jiangjun). This fearsome duo is responsible for escorting souls to the world and is differentiated by their red and green faces. Some traditions also name them as two of Chenghuang’s six trusted generals, the other four being Heibai Wuchang and Niutou Mamian.
  9. Jinqianbo (金钱伯): The “Money Master.” A kind but poor man who gave to charity despite his own predicaments. (Some versions alternatively say he was a wealthy man named Li Shaoxing who led a virtuous life) Upon dying, he was appointed by Yanluo Wang to supervise the paper money offerings burned by the living for the deceased.
  10. Mengpo (孟婆): Granny Meng. In Chinese folkloric beliefs and stories, this kindly granny resides in the Tenth Court of Hell and brews a soup with properties similar to that of the River Lethe in Greek Mythology. Souls who drink the soup before reincarnation forget about hell and their previous lives.
  11. Mianran Dashi (面然大士): Also referred to as Dashi Ye (大士爷), the formidable-looking Mianran Dashi is said to be an avatar of Guanyin or Taiyi Jiuku Tianzun, Guanyin being the widely worshipped Chinese Buddhism Goddess of Mercy. During Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival celebrations, he “oversees” prayer rituals.
  12. Niutou Mamian (牛头马面): The “Ox-Head” and “Horse-Face.” This beastly duo is commonly depicted as guardians or soldiers of the Chinese underworld. They are also described as the ones who escort souls to receive judgment, and are responsible for apprehending souls who have escaped. Of note, there is no consensus over whether the two are unique deities or two races of hellish denizens.
  13. Riye Youshen (日夜遊神): Day and night patrols gods responsible for reporting the happenings of the mortal world to Dongyue Dadi. In folkloric beliefs and medieval Chinese literature such as the Taohua Nu dou Zhougong (桃花女斗周公), the Day Patrol God is described as a fearsome and dangerous god, any encounter with would bring misfortune. Similarly, the Qing Dynasty novel Zuicha Zhiguai (醉茶志怪) tells the story of a man dying after meeting the dreaded Night Patrol God. Riye Youshen are also said to be part of a group of marshalls assisting Fengdu Dadi or Yanluo Wang.
  14. Sida Panguan (四大判官): While the Chinese characters 判官 mean “judge,” hellish panguan are usually depicted as bailiffs who assist the Ten Judges, particularly, Qinguang Wang. Some traditions, such as the displays at China’s Fengdu Ghost City attraction, further describe the four panguan as:

    - Wei Zhen (魏征): An advisor of Emperor Tang Taizong, legendary for his upright, outspoken character.

    - Zhong Kui (钟馗): The famous Chinese vanquisher of ghosts. A talented scholar, Zhong Kui committed suicide after he was denied his rightful government post because of his fearsome looks. Thereafter, he was given command over ghosts.

    - Lu Zhidao (陆之道): A fictitious character, Lu Zhidao, or Lu Pan (陆判), appeared in Liaozhai as a Chinese hell god capable of astonishing powers.

    - Cui Jie (崔珏): A Tang Dynasty county magistrate who was credited with many acts of miraculous salvation.

  15. Wudao Jiangjun (五道将军): Five generals under the command of Dongyue Dadi. They are believed to have substantial authority over life and death. Some traditions also believe they were originally bandits.
  16. Wufang Guidi (五方鬼帝): The “Ghostly Emperors of the Five Directions.” In Taoism, these “emperors” assist Fengdu Dadi to manage the spirits of the netherworld. Of note, there are nine emperors too, with two for every cardinal direction except for the South, and with the fifth direction being the middle. The Jin Dynasty Taoist Text Yuanshi Shangzhen Zhongxian Ji (元始上真众仙记) further lists the names of the nine emperors, two of which are notably, ancient door gods.
  17. Wufu Wangye (五福王爷): The “Dukes of Five Fortunes.” Originally worshipped as plague gods in Taoism, the Wufu Wangye are nowadays considered administrators of the Chinese underworld. In their direct line of command are the Taoist Plague Gods of the Five Venoms.
  18. Xiaoziye (孝子爷): Xiaoziye, or “Filial Son Lord,” is a character named Ding Lan from the Chinese classic text, The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars (二十四孝, Ershisi Xiao). Notoriously, Ding ill-treated his widowed mother despite her care for him. He also only realized his sins upon seeing young crows struggling to feed their mother, by the time of which his mother had already died. Filled with remorse, Ding then wore mourning clothes, carved his mother’s name onto a block of wood, and wept till he died. Impressed by his repentance, Yanluo Wang appointed him to oversee the treasury of Chinese Hell. Notably, stories from Ershisi Xiao are frequently painted onto the walls of temples venerating Chinese hell gods. This is due to filial piety being widely considered one of the most important virtues in Chinese culture. Xiaoziye himself is sometimes also referred to as Sanboye (三伯爷, Third Master).
  19. Xuehe Dajiangjun (血河大将): Most descriptions of the Chinese underworld include the Naihe Qiano (奈河桥), the “bridge over the helplessness river” that souls cross over to reach the courts of hell. Some versions also state that the river beneath is full of venomous creatures. The fearsome “general of the bloody river” hurls exceptionally sinful souls into this river. Perhaps as a prelude of sorts to subsequent torments.
  20. Yinsi Qishiwu Shi (陰司七十五司): The 75 attendants of Chinese hell. Usually regarded as the administrators/courtiers of Dongyue Dadi.
  21. Yinyang Sigong (陰陽司公): A Taoist God described as the auxiliary officer of Dongyue Dadi, Wufu Wangye, or Chenghuang. He has a most unusual appearance. His face is either black on the left and white on the right, or red and gold. Religiously, these colors represent his authority to examine the Yin and the Yang; thus his title. The colors also represent his absolute nature. For him, good and evil are as distinct as black and white.

Further Reading

A Trip Through the Chinese Ten Courts of Hell
Singapore’s Haw Par Villa is famous for its meticulous presentation of the Ten Courts of Hell.

Definition of Naraka
The definition of Naraka in Buddhism and Hinduism.

Visions of Hell in Video Games
A look at how hell, both Western and Asian versions, was portrayed in video games.

Gods of Death in World Mythology
A look at other rulers of hell, death, or the underworld in world mythology.

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Ced Yong