Ced earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.
The Chinese concept of Hell, or diyu (地狱), is easy to understand but tough to investigate.
Like Western counterparts, the Chinese “earthly prison” is a place of great torment for sinners and evil souls. It is likewise managed by an army of fearsome hell gods, some of which have truly terrifying appearances.
On the other hand, the origins of many Chinese gods of hell are hard to pinpoint. While some deities are clearly Buddhist or Taoist in origin, many others have murky folkloric roots. A handful are also historical or cultural heroes who were deified.
Regardless of origins, though, Chinese Gods of Hell count amongst the most feared deities. 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.
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 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 as well. All Chinese Gods of Hell ultimately report to the Court of Heaven. The latter is the true highest divine authority.
- Diguan Dadi (地官大帝): The “Earthly Court.” 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, Diguan is believed to be capable of absolving human sins too. Lastly, his birthday falls on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month. In Chinese culture, this date is celebrated as Zhongyuan Jie, i.e., the famous Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival.
- Dongyue Dadi (东岳大帝): The “Great Emperor of the East Mountain” is the God of Mount Tai, the most religiously important peak of the Five Sacred Mountains of China. Described as a descendant of Pangu in the Shenyi Jing (神异经), Dongyue Dadi is not only the leader of other mountain gods, he is also the highest authority of the netherworld, including hell. Notably, in most folkloric descriptions, he is assisted by Fengdu Dadi and other netherworld deities. Within Chinese Buddhism, he is also listed as one of the 24 Protective Deities.
- Fengdu Dadi (酆都大帝): The “Great Emperor of Fengdu City” is described in Taoism as the sovereign of the Ten Judges of Chinese Hell. His role in folkloric beliefs often overlaps with that of Dongyue Dadi, but in general, he is venerated as one of the rulers of the Chinese underworld, said to be assisted by a large entourage too. Of note, Fengdu is an actual historical city in China, famous for the Fengdu Ghost City, a large complex of temples and shrines dedicated to the afterlife. The complex is said to be modeled after Youdu (幽都), the capital of the Chinese underworld.
- Houtu (后土): Houtu is the “Queen of the Earth” in ancient Chinese beliefs. Some older traditions thus regard the goddess as the supreme authority of hell.
- Yanluo Wang (阎罗王): Yanluo is the Chinese transliterated name for Yama, the Buddhist King of Hell. One of the hardest Chinese hell gods to define for the name could refer to different concepts, “Yanluo Wang” is generally used as a convenient reference for any ruler of hell or god or death in Chinese pop culture. In Chinese Buddhism though, the name specifically refers to the judge that determines the punishment of wicked souls; in other words, the ruler of the Narakas. (Naraka is the Buddhist name for hellish places of torment) The apocryphal Fo Shuo Shi Wang Jing sutra conversely identifies Yanluo Wang as the fifth of the Ten Judges of Hell. In this role, Yanluo Wang oversees punishment for those who have obstructed generosity or who have slandered the monastic community.
The Ten Judges of Hell
The concept of ten judges/kings presiding over ten courts of hell was created by the syncretism of 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 family names, domains, and duties of these judges.
Of note, the sutra described 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.
Most importantly, punishments in 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.
- 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). Family name Jiang, with birthday stated as the first day of the second lunar month. Some folkloric beliefs further identify him as Jiang Ziwen, an Eastern Han Dynasty official who died while suppressing an insurrection.
- 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. Family name Li, with birthday stated as the first day of the third lunar month.
- 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, and the seditious. Family name Yu, with birthday stated as the eighth day of the second lunar month.
- 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 those who were dishonest in business dealings. Family name Lü, with birthday stated as the eighteenth day of the second lunar month.
- 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 those who have obstructed generosity or who have slandered the monastic community. Family name Bao, with birthday stated as the eighth day of the first lunar month. Some folkloric beliefs further identify Yanluo Wang as Bao Zheng, a much-respected judge and Chinese cultural hero from the Northern Song Dynasty.
- 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 and those who were disrespectful to heaven. Family name Bi, with birthday stated as the eighth day of the third lunar month.
- 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 rumormongers, those responsible for the separation of families, and alchemists who used corpses to make elixirs. Family name Dong, with birthday stated as the twenty-seventh day of the third lunar month.
- 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.
- Pingdeng Wang (平等王): The ninth judge, whose court resides underneath the ocean in the southwest. He governs the Avīci Naraka and is responsible for punishing sinners who have committed the gravest crimes. Family name Lu, with birthday stated as the eighth day of the fourth lunar month.
- 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.
Saviors of Suffering Souls
Chinese Buddhism and Taoism each have a savior for lost, condemned souls. While physical depictions of them are starkly different, both are prayed to in the same way for alleviation of afterlife suffering.
- 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, Dizangwang is famous for his 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.
- 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 Tianzu is said to be able to manifest himself in any form for the purpose of leading souls to paradise. Notably, the savior is also an important secondary character in the Ming Dynasty Chinese fantasy saga, Investiture of the Gods. However, in that story, he plays no such salvation role.
Other Chinese Gods of Death
The following are other notable Chinese gods of death associated with the afterlife and hell. Many are worshipped together with the above-mentioned gods, especially during funeral rites and Hungry Ghost Festival rituals.
- Chenghuang (城隍): Chenghuang were originally worshipped as gods of moats and walls, and regarded as tutelary deities that protect villages or towns. Nowadays, however, they are also associated with the afterlife, said to be the gods responsible for reporting mortal evil deeds to the officials of hell. In cities such as Singapore, Chenghuang temples always venerate many other Chinese Gods of Hell too. At such temples, it is commonplace to see grisly paintings of afterlife punishments.
- 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, 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. In Taiwan, however, they are referred to as Qiye Baye (七爷八爷), i.e., Seventh and Eighth Masters.
- Jinqianbo (金钱伯): The “Money Master.” A kind but poor man who gave to charity despite his own predicaments. Upon dying, he was appointed by Yanluo Wang to supervise the paper money offerings burned by the living for the deceased.
- Mengpo (孟婆): Granny Meng. In Chinese folkloric beliefs and stories, the 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.
- 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.
- 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 responsible for hunting souls who have escaped. Of note, there is no consensus over whether the duo are unique deities or two races of hellish denizens.
- 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 Tao Nu Hua (桃女花), the Day Patrol God is described as a fearsome and dangerous god, any encounter with would bring misfortune. Similarly, the Qing Dynasty novel Jiucha Zhiguai (醉茶志怪) tells the story of a man dying after meeting the dreaded Night Patrol God.
- 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 states 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, 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.
- 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 in all, with two emperors each for every cardinal direction except for the South, the fifth direction also 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.
- Wufu Wangye (五福王爷): The “Dukes of Five Fortunes.” Originally worshipped as plague gods in Taoism, the Wufu Wangye are nowadays considered as administrators of the Chinese underworld. In their direct line of command are the Taoist Plague Gods of the Five Venoms.
- Xiaoziye (孝子爷): A character named Ding Lan from the Chinese classic text, Twenty Four Acts of Filial Piety (二十四孝, Ershisi Xiao). Notoriously, Ding ill-treated his widowed mother despite her care for him. He 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 then appointed him to oversee the treasury of Chinese Hell. Of note, 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 as one of the most important virtues in Chinese culture. Xiaoziye himself is sometimes also referred to as Sanboye (三伯爷, Third Master).
- Yinsi Qishiwu Shi (陰司七十五司): The 72 attendants of Chinese hell. Originally minor mountain gods under the command of Dongyue Dadi, they are now viewed as the bureaucrats of the netherworld.
- Yinyang Sigong (陰陽司公) A Taoist God described as the secretary 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.
- 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.
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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