Episode 12: The Underworld

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In different cultures, people are always curious about what the afterlife is like and where do our spirits go after our physical bodies deceased. Today we are going to talk about the underworld.

In Christianity, there is the idea of “hell”, which is a little different from the Chinese culture. Since China is affected by Buddhism, Taoism and of course regional culture through thousands of years of history, when we talk about one concept or one tradition, it is a little bit complex and always a long story. Diyu地狱, the closest translation for hell, where di means the ground and yu means prison. However, the differences from hell in Christianity and the underworld in China are diyu is a place everybody goes after death instead of a result of a divine punishment and also the stay in the underworld is not eternal because of karma and reincarnation. From the Chinese culture perspective, I think the better translation for underworld is YingJian阴间. Ying is the Ying in Ying Yang. Jian means space. We call the world we live in YangJian阳间, so the space we live after death is YingJian.

YingJian, the underworld is partly based on the Buddhist concept of Naraka and is depicted a place with various levels and chambers. Diyu, the hell, is part of the underworlds. Before Zhou Dynasty 周朝, which is between 1046 BC to 256 BC, Chinese people already had the idea of HunPo魂魄, which represents the body and spirit. After a person died, the spirit goes to the sky and the body goes to the ground. Since Han Dynasty 汉朝, which is between 202 BC to the year 220, we had the concept of 阴间 from Taoism. Since the underworld is like the world we are in, there are different gods in charge of different chambers and levels.

In Taoism, Dongyue the great 东岳大帝, is in charge of life and death of all creatures. Dongyue means the east mountain, which indicates the Mountain Tai 泰山 in the east of China. Because east represents the beginning where lives are born. Fengdu Emperor 酆都大帝, is one of the assistants of Dongyue the great. He is in charge of the hell, where bad spirits get punishment. Fengdu, a real place in the west south China, is considered as the entrance to the hell. Today you can visit there since it becomes a touristy spot for people experiencing the afterlife.


Since the Buddhism came to China, we had the concept of the “ Ten Courts of the hell” 十殿阎罗 and 18 levels of hell, which is simplified from 134 worlds of hell in the Buddhist text. Sinners get tortures in different level based on the sins like the descipting in the book Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. The tortures includes mountains of knives, cauldron torture, burning, ice world and so on. Influenced by Buddhism, YanLuoWang 阎罗王 is the King of Hell. YanLuo is a transcription of the Sanskrit for King Yama. YanLuoWang is probably the most well-known god in the underworld in China. He is portrayed as a man with a red face, bulging eyes and a long beard, which I am sure looks differently from the image in Hindu vedas since he wears a traditional Chinese robe and a traditional Chinese judge’s cap. Similarly to the original Yama god, he is the fair judge of all the dead. The final judgement is also common in different cultures and definitely conveys the meaning to warn people behave well when they are alive. However, in the Chinese version, he has a book listing every soul and death date for every life.

You know the book Journey to the West 西游记, a fantasy novel published in the 16th in Ming Dynasty 明朝. We will tell stories from this book in the future since it is one of the four greatest classical novels in China. The monkey king in the novel just changed the book to change people’s lives. He saw his name that he could live for 342 years and he crossed all the monkeys’ names from the book, which means they would be no longer controlled by YanLuoWang. YanLuoWang’s assistants Ox-head and Horse- face 牛头马 面, two guardians of hell would bring the newly dead to YanLuoWang for judgment. Human with merit with be rewarded good future lives such as born in a rich family. Those committed misdeeds would be sentenced to miserable future lives or to torture. The torture in the hell can be years or thousands of years before reincarnation.


DizangPusa地藏菩萨, a transcription from Ksitigarbha from Buddhism is another god we believe, who is depicted as a Buddhist monk with halo and is regarded as the Bodhisattva of hell-beings.

Maybe it is commendable to be a good person knowing there is no underworld because you choose to be.



阴间 YingJian/underworld

东岳大帝 Dongyue the great

酆都大帝 Fengdu Emperor

泰山 Mountain Tai

十殿阎罗 Ten Courts of the hell

Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

阎罗王 YanLuoWang

King Yama

西游记 Journey to the West

牛头马 面 ox-head and Horse- face

地藏菩萨 DizangPusa


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