Like oversized dollshouse rooms, or panoramas in old-fashioned museums, the chambers of hell are laid out in Daoist temples in an incredibly literal depiction of spiritual progress.
Daoist Hell, first established as a replica of mortal feudal government, is a huge bureaucratic machine. There are departments recording and overseeing every possible aspect of life and afterlife, doling out rewards and punishments according to strict measurements of virtue and wickedness.
There seems little space for imagination, for luck – but probably that’s the point; perhaps ordinary people found life under the feudal Emperors too painfully lacking in impartial legal justice, and longed for infallible fairness in the next life.
It’s clearly a highly sophisticated social and religious system, but these endless careful divisions and brightly-painted graphic scenes somehow remind me of my childhood universe, of hours spent rearranging my dollshouse rooms, writing lists of things I wanted, putting my coloured pencils in rainbow order.
here’s a selection of hellish departments from the Dongyue temple in Beijing. Which one do you feel you belong in?
Department of Signing Documents
Department for Determining Individual Destiny
Department of Confiscating Unwarranted Property
Plague Performing Department
Department for Implementing Fifteen Kinds of Violent Death
Department of Raingods
Department for Demons and Monsters
Unjust Death Department
Department for Preservation of Wilderness (ahead of its time)
Department of Betrayal
Department for Bestowing Happiness
Egg Birth Department (‘..to warn people that if they fail to do good deeds they will become low class flying birds in their next birth and will have to go on pecking at food to stay alive’)
Department for Resurrection
Department in Charge of Suffering and Distress
Department of Instant Rewards and Retribution
Department of Pity and Sympathy
Department for Accumulating Justified Wealth
Water Birth Department (not a maternity ward ahead of its time, but overseeing punishment for inadequate behaviour in this life by birth in the next as a fish)
Door God Department
Department for Controlling Evil Spirits
Department for Suppressing Schemes
Department for Wandering Ghosts
Flying Birds Department
Department of Petty Officials
Execution Department (‘The executioner’s block of the nether world’)
Final Indictment Department
Death and Life Department