A Journey Through Chinese Hell: Hell Scrolls of Taiwan

April 22 – July 22, 1995
These rarely exhibited Scrolls depict a colorful journey through Chinese folk customs, morality and religion; including Confucism, Taoism and Buddhism. Two sets of scrolls, twenty per set, depict the ten stages or “Courts”–each ruled by a king, in which the souls of the deceased atone for transgressions during life, then pass on to reincarnation.

The Scrolls chart the course of the souls through its hellish journey and served to reassure anxious relatives when the shade has cleared the tenth and final court. The Hell Scrolls were often disdained by intellectuals and discarded after the funeral. These, however, have been carefully preserved and
annotated, and are now considered valuable historic artifacts and records of folk art and religion. Their
graphic depictions of tortures appropriate to each transgression, along with over five hundred inscriptions identifying the specific sin for each punishment is being givenf constitute a remarkable
record of traditional Chinese moral standards and a rare example of literature Hell Scrolls are sometimes hung in temples during the Ghost Festival or at “Chiao” or “Ta Bai Bai” ceremonies (rites held
at irregular intervals over a period of several days offering thanksgiving, seeking forgiveness or purification). However, they are normally found at funerals where they are an integral part of thecentury, is undoubtedly among the oldest surviving sets. The other is a fine, visually
exciting example of very early twentieth century Chinese folk art. Since the Chinese view
the Yin (spirit) world as mirror reflection of the Yang (human) world, souls are tried in a complex identical to a dynastic magistrate complete with court buildings, judges, jailers and punishment.
Instruments of torture match those commonly used in pre-republican China, with the
exception of a few sins, so labeled on the Scrolls–whose punishment requires eternal
damnation, a soul will not remain in Hell forever. Purgatory might be a more
accurate referral to the ten courts, but tradition dictates we refer to them as Hell.
Although many books make note of the Hell Scrolls, there is hardly anything about them in
English. They will help us to understand Chinese tradition and appreciate over two hundred
years of a folkloric tradition which goes back even further. At the end of the Scrolls we
learn that the deceased are given a potion to make them forget their previous lives as
well as all the revelations of Hell. At reincarnation, they emerge as whole, well atoned
persons.

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nullIntroduction
by Paul Michael Taylor
Curator of Asian Ethnology
National Museum of Natural History
Smithsonian Institution

Donnelly’s A Journey through Chinese Hell, accompanying the exhibition of the
same name, has allowed me and will allow every reader to accompany him on a delightful
colorful journey through traditional Chinese folkways, morality, high ethics. guilt.
meritmaking, and religion. Its most basic and lasting contribution is that it illustrates
two rare and beautiful sets of scrolls, which Donnelly collected while serving as an
American foreign service officer in the Republic of China. and which he has generously
donated to the Smithsonian Institution. Each series of ten scrolls depicts the ten stages
or “Courts” each ruled by a King, in which the souls of the deceased atone for transgressions
during life, then pass on to reincarnation. Such scrolls were used in protracted
funeral ceremonies to chart the soul of the deceased through its hellish journey. thus
reassuring anxious relatives when the shade had cleared the tenth and final court. Hell
is presented in attention-arresting fashion. The punishments shown for each kind of sin
truly are an almost delightful guide through traditional Chinese ideas of morality and its
opposite.
Hell Scrolls, popular art form sometimes disdained by Chinese intellectuals and
rarely preserved after their use. are now valuable historic artifacts and records of folk
art and religion. Their graphic depiction of tortures appropriate to each transgression,
accompanied in these scrolls by over five hundred inscriptions identifying the specific
sin for which each punishment is being given, constitute a remarkable record of traditional
Chinese moral standards and a rare example of literature for the illiterate.
One set of scrolls .n this exhibition, from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth
century, is undoubtedly among the oldest surviving sets. The other is a fine, visually exciting
example of very early twentieth century Chinese folk art. Each illustrated scroll is
accompanied by a silhouette guide to persons and events depicted. Annotated translations
of Chinese inscriptions, as well as original Chinese texts, are provided for reference
by Sinologists.
Though several books about Chinese religion, “superstition,” or folklore refer to
Hell Scrolls, there is little information available in English about them. (The catalog of
the Vidor Collection exhibition, in the bibliography below, is the one exception in that
this Chinese-language catalog does have some English captions and summaries; see also
Dore 1966.) We believe this will be the first exhibition dedicated to Hell Scrolls in the
United States, although there have been several recent general exhibitions of Chinese
folk art, and individual isolated scrolls from various sets of ten “hells” have been shown.
The scrolls described and illustrated in this book have never before been exhibited.
Themes depicted and motifs used in these scrolls are widespread in Asia. Indeed
there is much more that could be done by art historians to interpret the scrolls presented
here in light of their historical antecedents, or in the relation of such folk traditions
to the more well-studied art of Chinese literati. Even the system of morality expressed
in the scrolls, recorded by Donnelly just as the users of the scrolls described it
to him. clearly contains elements of Confucianism. Buddhism, Taoism,’ and other religious
traditions. Those interested in exploring the origins and further implications of the
fascinating ethical system described to Mr. Donnelly by the people who use these scrolls
may wish to refer to further readings cited at the end of this Introduction
The information presented here in detail by the collector. about the scrolls illustrated
here and shown in the accompanying exhibition. is of a different kind. Donnelly
has painstakingly discussed with people. in the communities who use these scrolls. the
meanings they themselves assign to each of the events depicted. He describes their interpretations
of the visual evidence in these scrolls, and their interpretations of the many
written Chinese passages that occur at every turn in these hellish journeys through two
sets of ten scrolls. Two parallel journeys through hell. Two parallel journeys through
the intricate ethical system upheld in traditional communities on Taiwan.
Note that after their journey through the ten stages of hell, souls of the deceased
are given a potio so they will forget their previous lives (as well as all the revelations
of hell) just before their reincarnation as whole, well-atoned persons. The lessons of this
journey can only clearly be remembered in the form we see them, as scrolls depicting
the journey, seen by the still-living villagers who view them. use them to chart the postmortem.
path taken by their deceased loved ones, and learn from- them. We thank the
author for allowing us to learn from them too.
Suggested Readings
Dore, Henry
1966 Researches into Chinese Superstition [1920]. Taipei: Ch’eng-wen Printing
Company.
Granet, Marcel
1975 The Religion of the Chinese People. (M. Freedman, trans.) Oxford. England:
Oxford University Press.

CHINESE HELL
The concept of Hell came rather late to China. It arrived in the first century A.D.
with the spread of Indian Buddhism which in turn borrowed the idea from Brahmanism.
The belief in other world, punishment for terrestrial transgressions took hold quickly.
Second century Chinese texts already separated Hell into different courts and listed specific
tortures to be administered to sinners. However, the formal cult of the Ten Kings
was not codified until the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618·907). By that time even Taoists
adopted the Buddhist doctrine of life after death where one would be punished or
rewarded according to moral performance while alive.
Hell’ paintings as we know them today, representing not only a blending of Buddhism
and Taoism but with a heavy infusion of Confucianism, contrast sharply with
descriptions of Indian Hell. It is not clear just when sins against Confucian ethics began
to be included, but available nineteenth and twentieth century scrolls portray numerous
punishments for lapses in strictly Confucian ethics. Disrespect for the written word,
inattention in class, and being so unfilial as to side with one’s wife against one’s mother
in a family quarrel rate punishment equal to, or at times more horrifying than, that
for murder and ape.
No one knows for certain who was the first Chinese artist to paint scenes of Hell,
but there are many references to Wu Tao Tze, a Tang painter whose portrayals, probably
temple murals, were said to be so moving that a certain butcher (whose occupation
naturally depended on the slaughter of innocent animals) gave up his livelihood to pursue
a less sinful profession, one more acceptable to the ten terrible kings and more conducive
to gaining and storing merit for use in the afterlife. Regrettably none of Wu’s original murals
of hell has survived.
Traditionally Hell scroll artists did little more than copy an existing set modifying
the contents slightly to fit local conditions. If mistakes were made, these were then perpetuated
by apprentices. For additional inspiration the artists had access to one of the
many Yu Li, the so-called “shan shu,” i.e. good books. These slim volumes were inspirational
guides to proper conduct. A set of crude wood block prints depicting the tor·
tures of Hell with precise explanations of the sins which brought on each punishment
figured prominently in Yu Li texts. Examples of good conduct which gained merit were
also included. Such acts as saving animals from slaughter and funding the distribution
of shan shu gained merit. The Hell scrolls and the shan shu reinforced each other and
worked to standardize the Chinese view of Hell.
The faithful believe Hell’s torments are accurately portrayed because many–monks
and artists included–who claim to have visited Hades in their dreams recount their
observations for the benefit of the living. Also. modern day shamans often leave their
entranced bodies for a journey into Hell to make inquiries on behalf of a client. So.
there is no lack of “first hand” evidence.
In Taiwan these scrolls are used in funeral ceremonies to chart the soul of the deceased
through its hellish journey, thus reassuring anxious relatives when the shade has
cleared the tenth and final court. A secondary but more practical and socially beneficial
function is as visual aids promoting virtue and restraining antisocial conduct. Whether
one believes or not. Hell is presented in attention-arresting fashion. The viewer, especially
the young, cannot help but be impressed by the lessons of the scrolls.
The Chinese view the Yin (spirit) world as mirror reflection of the Yang (human) world.
Souls are tried in a complex identical to a dynastic magistrate complete with
court buildings, judges, jailors and punishment. The instruments of torture match those
commonly used in pre-republican China. [Yen the possibility of a bribe is present. Part
of the point of burning spirit money is to equip the shade with sufficient cash to bribe
the nether world jailors. who are no less venal than their Yang world counterparts.
With the exception of a few sins. so labeled on the scrolls, whose punishment requires
eternal damnation, a soul will not remain in Hell forever. It might be more accurate
to use purgatory in referring to the ten courts. but tradition dictates we refer to
them as Hell
The ruler of Hell ironically is never shown on the scrolls. He is the god Ti Tsang
Wang p’u Sa who unlike the ten kings has a compassionate disposition Day-to-day
administration IS in the hands of the ten kings. three of whom deserve special mention.
Ch’in Kuang is the king or judge of the first court. It is his duty to weigh sins committed
against merit accumulated. If merit outweighs transgressions. the shade might be
given safe passage to the tenth court where Chuan Lun presides. ‘Chuan Lun will then
assign the soul to one of the six paths. The Ho scrolls depict the possibilities of reincarnation
as: nobility. common man, quadruped. fowl. fish and insect. Howeyer, there is
not complete agreement on these categories among scroll painters or Yu Li authors.
Some, for example, portray the possibilities as rebirth: in heaven, on earth. as a demon.
an animal. a “hungry ghost,” or in Hell itself. (A hungry ghost is one who died without
descendants to burn i:.-:ense and offer sacrifices of meat and fruit to its spirit on
appropriate days. Such a one knows no peace and roams near the place of death causing
mischief. Tiny imageless temples to these “Good Brothers,” as they are euphemistically
called. dot the Taiwan countryside. Neighbors will make the required offerings to
placate the spirit hoping to put it in good humor so that no ghostly harm will come to
their community. I
The most colorful and best known of the kings is Yen Lo who sits in the fifth
, .,
On ·S· ‘* ..
court, Yen Lo corresponds to Yama of the Indian pantheon, Yama. originally judge of
the first court. was demoted to the fifth because he was too lenient, There in addition to
meting out punishments he himself is tortured twice daily for his unreasonable merciful
nature, Many Chinese, howeyer. claim Yen Lo is the eleyenth century Sung Dynasty
judge Pao Cheng who has been deified as the god Pao Kung, He was renowned for his
incorruptibility and his fair, bu seYere judgments,
Yen Lo is always portrayed with a black face. symbol of his se\,erity, :\lthough sta·
tues of the ten judges are occasionally found in temples. Hong Kong’s Hollywood Road
Temple for example, Yen Lo is the king most often worshipped separatelY with templts
in his honor. Hu Hsiao·ch’ih writing in “Mainland Trayels” I Hsing Kuang Publishing
Company. 1980 J tells us that at the most famous of these in Feng Tu. Szechuan there is
an altar reseryed for his “wife,” It is a common practice for the faithful to can’t a
spouse statue for gods so they will not be “lonely,” King Yen Lo. howe\’er. has a SpOUSt
with a difference, Off to one side there is a small room. locked and sealed with strIpS of
paper. Peering through a window into the darkened room, one can :;ee the outline of a
mummy who is the “wife” of King Yen Lo, It has been a practice in China for certain
holy people to request preseryation in large earthen crocks after death rather than the
com’entional method of burial. After a time these holy people are extracted in ami, 1111
fied state, Some are co\’ered with a protectiye layer of mortar, decorated with gold Itaf.
and placed on altars either in priyate home:; or temples, In Tai\\’an today three such
“fleshy buddhas” are worshipped, One can be found in the northern town of Hsi Chih.
one in the Taipei suburb of Hsin Tien, and another in Nei P’u. P’ingtung. I han- not
been able to determine the circumstances surrounding the selection of the woman to bt
King Yen Lo’s wife. One can only surmise that she was a de\’out lady of the community
who the inhabitants felt would be a worthy mate for the ruler of the fifth court.
One of the few temples to King Ch’in Kuang sits on t\lin Shan in Szechuan .
.-\ccording to legem!j the ten kings feared a landslide on this mountain which guards the
gate to Hell. They commissioned King Ch’in Kuang to camp there with his ghostly sol·
diers to guard against such a mishap, A temple was built for this purpose by the inhab·
itants and through the years Ch’in Kuang has kept his post.
There are seyeral way stations in Hell where the tormented soul might be required
to stop. The two sets of scrolls and the Yu Li wood block prints differ in their place.
ment. The order described in the following fiye paragraphs refers to that in the Ho
scrolls only.
In the first court. all newly arriYed shades must gaze into the Mirror of E\’il which
reflects past sins. Should the shade haye ended his own life l an unfilial act I or died be·
fore its appointed time under other than honorable circumstances I battlefield death or
suicide in defense of \’irtue are considered honorable, the shade will be brought to
Wang Sze Ch’eng I City for Those Who Wrongly Died I located in the fourth court.