What is Diyu?

Diyu ( 地獄) is the realm of the dead or “hell” in Chinese mythology. It is loosely based on a combination of the concept of Naraka, traditional Chinese beliefs about the afterlife and a variety of popular expansions and reinterpretations of these two traditions.

Diyu is typically depicted as a subterranean maze with various levels and chambers, to which souls are taken after death to atone for the sins they committed when they were alive. The exact number of levels in Diyu and their associated deities differ between Buddhist and Taoist interpretations. Some speak of three to four “courts”; others mention “Ten Courts of Hell”, each of which is ruled by a judge (collectively known as the Ten Yama Kings); other Chinese legends speak of the “Eighteen Levels of Hell”. Each court deals with a different aspect of atonement and different punishments; most legends claim that sinners are subjected to gruesome tortures until their “deaths”, after which they are restored to their original state for the torture to be repeated.

Ming dynasty (16th century) glazed earthenware figurines representing three of the ten Yama Kings.

Ming dynasty (16th century) glazed earthenware figurines representing three of the ten Yama Kings.

Conceptions

According to ideas from Taoism, Buddhism and traditional Chinese folk religion, Diyu is a purgatory that serves to punish and renew spirits in preparation for reincarnation. Many deities, whose names and purposes are the subject of conflicting accounts, are associated with Diyu.

Some early Chinese societies speak of people going to Mount Tai, Jiuyuan, Jiuquan or Fengdu after death. At present, Fengdu and the temples on Mount Tai have been rebuilt into tourist attractions, incorporating artistic depictions of hell and the afterlife. Some Chinese folk religion planchette writings, such as the Taiwanese novel Journeys to the Under-World, say that new hells with new punishments are created as the world changes and that there is a City of Innocent Deaths (枉死城) designed to house those who died with grievances that have yet to be redressed.

Ten Courts of Hell

Entrance to the "Ten Courts of Hell" attraction in Haw Par Villa, Singapore. The Ox-Headed (right) and Horse-Faced (left) Hell Guards stand guard at the entrance.

Entrance to the “Ten Courts of Hell” attraction in Haw Par Villa, Singapore. The Ox-Headed (right) and Horse-Faced (left) Hell Guards stand guard at the entrance.

The concept of the “Ten Courts of Hell” (十殿閻羅) began after Chinese folk religion was influenced by Buddhism. In Chinese mythology, the Jade Emperor put Yama in charge of overseeing the affairs of Diyu. There are 12,800 hells located under the earth – eight dark hells, eight cold hells and 84,000 miscellaneous hells located at the edge of the universe. All will go to Diyu after death but the period of time one spends in Diyu is not indefinite – it depends on the severity of the sins one committed. After receiving due punishment, one will eventually be sent for reincarnation. In the meantime, souls pass from stage to stage at Yama’s decision. Yama also reduced the number of hells to ten. He divided Diyu into ten courts, each overseen by a Yama King, while he remained as the sovereign ruler of Diyu.

Ten Yama Kings
# Title Family name Birthday
(in the Chinese calendar)
In charge of
(see the Cold and Hot Narakas for details)
Notes
1 King Qin’guang
秦廣王
Jiang
1st day of the 2nd month Life and death and fortunes of all humans Believed to be Jiang Ziwen
2 King Chujiang
楚江王
Li
1st day of the 3rd month Sañjīva, Arbuda
3 King Songdi
宋帝王
Yu
8th day of the 2nd month Kālasūtra, Nirarbuda
4 King Wuguan
五官王

18th day of the 2nd month Saṃghāta, Aṭaṭa
5 King Yanluo
閻羅王
Bao
8th day of the 1st month Raurava, Hahava Believed to be Bao Zheng
6 King Biancheng
卞城王
Bi
8th day of the 3rd month Mahāraurava, Huhuva, and City of Innocent Deaths
7 King Taishan
泰山王
Dong
27th day of the 3rd month Tapana, Utpala
8 King Dushi
都市王
Huang
1st day of the 4th month Pratāpana, Padma
9 King Pingdeng
平等王
Lu
8th day of the 4th month Avīci, Mahāpadma
10 King Zhuanlun
轉輪王
Xue
17th day of the 4th month Sending souls for reincarnation

Capital

Main article: Youdu

Among the various other geographic features believed of Diyu, the capital city has been thought to be named Youdu. It is generally conceived as being similar to a typical Chinese capital city, such as Chang’an, but surrounded with and pervaded with darkness.

Eighteen Levels of Hell

The headless ghost of Yue Fei confronting the recently deceased spirit of Qin Hui in the Sixth Court. The plaque held by the attendant on the left reads: "Qin Hui's ten wicked crimes." From a 19th-century Chinese Hell Scroll.

The headless ghost of Yue Fei confronting the recently deceased spirit of Qin Hui in the Sixth Court. The plaque held by the attendant on the left reads: “Qin Hui’s ten wicked crimes.” From a 19th-century Chinese Hell Scroll.

The concept of the eighteen hells started in the Tang dynasty. The Buddhist text Sutra on Questions about Hell (問地獄經) mentioned 134 worlds of hell, but was simplified to the Eighteen Levels of Hell in the Sutra on the Eighteen Hells (十八泥犁經) for convenience. Sinners feel pain and agony just like living humans when they are subjected to the tortures listed below. They cannot “die” from the torture because when the ordeal is over, their bodies will be restored to their original states for the torture to be repeated. The eighteen hells vary from narrative to narrative but some commonly mentioned tortures include: being steamed; being fried in oil cauldrons; being sawed into half; being run over by vehicles; being pounded in a mortar and pestle; being ground in a mill; being crushed by boulders; being made to shed blood by climbing trees or mountains of knives; having sharp objects driven into their bodies; having hooks pierced into their bodies and being hung upside down; drowning in a pool of filthy blood; being left naked in the freezing cold; being set aflame or cast into infernos; being tied naked to a bronze cylinder with a fire lit at its base; being forced to consume boiling liquids; tongue ripping; eye gouging; teeth extraction; heart digging; disembowelment; skinning; being left naked in the freezing cold; being trampled, gored, mauled, eaten, stung, bitten, pecked, etc., by animals.
Eighteen Hells
# Version 1 Version 2 As mentioned in Journey to the West
1 Hell of Tongue Ripping
拔舌地獄
Naraka Hell
泥犁地獄
Hell of Hanging Bars
吊筋獄
2 Hell of Scissors
剪刀地獄
Hell of the Mountain of Knives
刀山地獄
Hell of the Wrongful Dead
幽枉獄
3 Hell of Trees of Knives
鐵樹地獄
Hell of Boiling Sand
沸沙地獄
Hell of the Pit of Fire
火坑獄
4 Hell of Mirrors of Retribution
孽镜地狱
Hell of Boiling Faeces
沸屎地獄
Fengdu Hell
酆都獄
5 Hell of Steaming
蒸籠地獄
Hell of Darkened Bodies
黑身地獄
Hell of Tongue Ripping
拔舌獄
6 Hell of Copper Pillars
銅柱地獄
Hell of Fiery Chariots
火車地獄
Hell of Skinning
剝皮獄
7 Hell of the Mountain of Knives
刀山地獄
Hell of Cauldrons
鑊湯地獄
Hell of Grinding
磨捱獄
8 Hell of the Mountain of Ice
冰山地獄
Hell of Iron Beds
鐵床地獄
Hell of Pounding
碓搗獄
9 Hell of Oil Cauldrons
油鍋地獄
Hell of Cover Mountains
蓋山地獄
Hell of Dismemberment by Vehicles
車崩獄
10 Hell of the Pit of Cattle
牛坑地獄
Hell of Ice
寒冰地獄
Hell of Ice
寒冰獄
11 Hell of Boulder Crushing
石壓地獄
Hell of Skinning
剝皮地獄
Hell of Moulting
脫殼獄
12 Hell of Mortars and Pestles
舂臼地獄
Hell of Beasts
畜生地獄
Hell of Disembowelment
抽腸獄
13 Hell of the Pool of Blood
血池地獄
Hell of Weapons
刀兵地獄
Hell of the Pool of Blood
血池獄
14 Hell of the Wrongful Dead
枉死地獄
Hell of Iron Mills
鐵磨地獄
Hell of Oil Cauldrons
油鍋獄
15 Hell of Dismemberment
磔刑地獄
Hell of Dismemberment
磔刑地獄
Hell of Darkness
黑暗獄
16 Hell of the Mountain of Fire
火山地獄
Hell of Iron Books
鐵冊地獄
Hell of the Mountain of Knives
刀山獄
17 Hell of Mills
石磨地獄
Hell of Maggots
蛆蟲地獄
Avīci Hell
阿鼻獄
18 Hell of Sawing
刀鋸地獄
Hell of Molten Copper
烊銅地獄
Hell of Weighing Scales
秤桿獄

Some literature refers to eighteen types of hells or to eighteen hells for each type of punishment. Some religious or literature books say that wrongdoers who were not punished when they were alive are punished in the hells after death.

Alternative names

Illustration from the Jade Record: Tortures being meted out in the Sixth Court of Hell: hammering metal spikes into the body; skinning alive; sawing body in half; kneeling on metal filings.

Illustration from the Jade Record: Tortures being meted out in the Sixth Court of Hell: hammering metal spikes into the body; skinning alive; sawing body in half; kneeling on metal filings.

Among the more common Chinese names for the Underworld are:

  • Difu ( 地府; pinyin: Dìfǔ; Wade–Giles: Ti4-fu3), “Earth Mansion”.
  • Huangquan (simplified  黄泉; traditional  黃泉; pinyin: Huángquán; Wade–Giles: Huang2-ch’üan2), “Yellow Springs”, called yomi in Japanese.
  • Yinjian (simplified  阴间; traditional  陰間; pinyin: Yīnjiān; Wade–Giles: Yin1-chien1; literally: ‘Yin dimension’), “Land of Shade”.
  • Yinfu (simplified  阴府; traditional  陰府; pinyin: Yīnfǔ; Wade–Giles: Yin1-fu3), “Shady Mansion”.
  • Yinsi (simplified  阴司; traditional  陰司; pinyin: Yīnsī; Wade–Giles: Yin1-szu1), “Shady Office”.
  • Senluo Dian (simplified  森罗殿; traditional  森羅殿; pinyin: Sēnluódiàn; Wade–Giles: Sen1-lo2 Tien4), “Court of Senluo”.
  • Yanluo Dian (simplified  阎罗殿; traditional  閻羅殿; pinyin: Yánluódiàn; Wade–Giles: Yan2-lo2 Tien4), “Court of Yanluo”.
  • Jiuquan ( 九泉; pinyin: Jiǔquán; Wade–Giles: Chiu3-ch’üan2), “Nine Springs”.
  • Zhongquan ( 重泉; pinyin: Zhòngquán; Wade–Giles: Chung4-ch’üan2), “Heavy Spring”.
  • Quanlu ( 泉路; pinyin: Quánlù; Wade–Giles: Ch’üan2-lu4), “Road to the Spring”.
  • Youming ( 幽冥; pinyin: Yōumíng; Wade–Giles: Yu1-ming2), “Serene Darkness”.
  • Yourang ( 幽壤; pinyin: Yōurǎng; Wade–Giles: Yu1-jang3), “Serene Land”.
  • Huokang ( 火炕; pinyin: Huǒkàng; Wade–Giles: Huo3-kang4), “Fire Pit”.
  • Jiuyou ( 九幽; pinyin: Jiǔyōu; Wade–Giles: Chiu3-yu1), “Nine Serenities”.
  • Jiuyuan ( 九原; pinyin: Jiǔyuán; Wade–Giles: Chiu3-yüan2), “Nine Origins”.
  • Mingfu ( 冥府; pinyin: Míngfǔ; Wade–Giles: Ming2-fu3), “Dark Mansion”.
  • Mingjie ( 冥界; pinyin: Míngjiè; Wade–Giles: Ming2-chieh4), “Dark Realm”, “Underworld”.
  • Kujing 苦境; pinyin: Kǔjìng; Wade–Giles: K`u3-ching4), “Dire Straits”, “(Place of) Grievance”.
  • Abi ( 阿鼻; pinyin: Ābí; Wade–Giles: A1-pi2), “Avīci”, the hell of uninterrupted torture, last and deepest of the Eight Hot Narakas.
  • Zugen ( 足跟; pinyin: Zúgēn; Wade–Giles: Tsu2-ken1), “Heel”.
  • Fengdu Cheng (simplified  丰都城; traditional  酆都城; pinyin: Fēngdū Chéng; Wade–Giles: Feng1-tu1 Ch’eng2), a reference to the Fengdu Ghost City.

Other terminology related to hell includes:

  • Naihe Qiao (simplified  奈何桥; traditional  奈何橋; pinyin: Nàihé Qiáo; Wade–Giles: Nai4-ho2 Ch’iao2), “Bridge of Helplessness”, a bridge every soul has to cross before being reincarnated, they are said to drink the Mengpo soup(孟婆汤) at Naihe Qiao so they will forget everything in their current lives and prepare for reincarnation.
  • Wang Xiang Tai (simplified  望乡台; traditional  望鄉臺; pinyin: Wàng Xiāng Tái; Wade–Giles: Wang4 Hsiang1 T’ai2), “Home-Viewing Pavilion”, a pavilion every soul passes by on his/her journey to the Underworld. From there, they can see their families and loved ones in the world of the living.
  • Youguo (simplified  油锅; traditional  油鍋; pinyin: Yóu Guō; Wade–Giles: Yu2-kuo1), “Oil Cauldron”, one of the tortures in hell.
  • Santu (simplified  三涂; traditional  三塗; pinyin: Sān Tú; Wade–Giles: San1-t’u2), the “Three Tortures”: Fire Torture (simplified  火涂; traditional  火塗; pinyin: Huǒ Tú; Wade–Giles: Huo3-t’u2), Blade Torture (simplified  刀涂; traditional  刀塗; pinyin: Dāo Tú; Wade–Giles: Tao1-t’u2), Blood Torture (simplified  血涂; traditional  血塗; pinyin: Xuě Tú; Wade–Giles: Hsüeh3-t’u2; literally: ‘spilling of blood’).

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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