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Taoist Hell

Updated on November 19, 2012

The Chinese concept of the underworld

An interesting discussion of the Taoist concept of hell is found in the October 1914 issue of the Chinese Recorder, a monthly magazine published by the American Presbyterian Mission Press in Shanghai. Along with news of missionary activities, there are quite a few articles detailing the state of China at that time, nearly 100 years ago, including the religious customs and beliefs of the native peoples of that country. There is apparently a long-standing belief in the existence of hell in the religious traditions of that country. We Christians cannot argue with that point generally speaking. We believe that there is a hell and also a heaven. When you die there are only two options. It is a binary thing, apparently. You will go either to heaven or hell. If you are really as smart as you think you are, why are you digging your way to hell? It does give a pause to wonder why this chilling exhibit of a Taoist hell would prove such a popular attraction but then again if hell is what the people want, who are we to tell them where to go?

A Study of a Taoist Hell

Article contributed by Robert F. Fitch

The Taoist hell herewith described is financed by a family at Dzkyi, a city within the Province of Chehkiang. A rich man by the name of Dzen raised a large subscription within his clan for the erection of the hell, and the members of his clan who are Taoist priests take their turn in coming to Hangchow, to the Taoist hell, to live on the profits for a year and then return for another priest to take his place. The institution brings large profits to the clan. It is an elaborate scheme for making money out of the credulity of pilgrims (especially women), who congregate at special seasons in large numbers, burn their incense, their paper money, and recite their prayers, with the hope of saving themselves or their relatives from the tortures of hell, and also with the hope of accumulating both money and merit in the future world. From the first to the middle of the seventh month of each year, the ashes from the paper money bring several thousands of dollars, the residue of tin being taken out and remade into paper money.

At this season also, lunatics are brought at night, lanterns are lighted, a great noise is made by various devices, and judgment is passed upon the lunatic. With him is brought a straw effigy which is beaten and exorcised. After judgment is given by the priest, who speaks for some deity, the man is supposed either to recover or to die. Either may happen, since he may be either frightened to death, or the noise, excitement and lights may arouse his brain and bring him back temporarily or permanently to his senses.

The candles which are brought by the pilgrims are often snuffed out after being lit for a moment or two, and the remains are sold annually for several hundreds of dollars.

1. The Kings of Hades

As one enters the temple, on both sides are long rows of the Kings of Hades, to whose tender mercies are committed the souls of men.

2. Spirits of Lower World

At the end of the right hall is a small archway through very massive walls, guarded on both sides within by the Wu Dzang Moh-Phil, who are the spirits of the lower world, ready at any unexpected time to seize their victims and escort them below. Their very appearance is enough to inspire terror and some Chinese children suffer severely from the effects of their first experiences with such goblins. Every delineation is calculated to inspire terror and the aspect is sinister in the extreme. Back of these devils in the gloom, and not shown clearly in the photograph, is His Satanic Majesty.

3. Torture Chamber

Within this entrance is the torture chamber. In the upper row sit the gods who pass judgment and in the lower row the demons who carry such judgment into execution. Among the tortures prescribed are burning the body into ashes by degrees (shown in the photograph), grinding into powder with mortar and pestle (a pestle is shown in the photograph), boiling in oil, being attacked by fierce dogs, being cut with sharp knives, being frozen in ice, being cast into the pool of bloody filth, being fastened to a caldron and broiled, crossing an impossible bridge and filling into a pit where poisonous snakes tear the flesh, and so on. It is claimed by many that the tortures herewith described were often duplicated by the officials under the Manchu regime when they wished to terrify evil-doers. These Taoist hells were also an inspiration to the Boxers in the tortures they imposed upon Christians.

4. Cow Head and Horse Face devils.

At the end of this torture chamber is another entrance guarded by the Cow Head and Horse Face devils. These are obedient spirits of the lower world who inflict the tortures upon their victims.

5. The Pool of Bloody Filth

Behind guardians who are especially sinister in aspect is the chamber of the Pool of Bloody Filth. Into this pool, all women who die in childbirth are plunged. In the photograph the Queen of the Pool is at the right, and to the left is the stone pool, with a couple of devils waiting in glee to get their next victims.

6. Bell struck to get women out of the pool

Why women who do their duty in child-bearing should be plunged into such a place is not stated, but it is their misfortune and the Taoists have means to get them out. The hair of the woman must be cut, or some article of apparel such as her shoes secured. The article secured but be brought to a great bell, where money is paid, prayers are said, incense is burned and the bell is struck, to get the woman out of the pool. In the photograph is shown a bell in this Taoist hell with the hair of one woman and the shoes of two women, who died on the first and twenty-first of the 11th lunar month in the year 1913. It is simply a diabolical scheme to get money and to play on the sympathies of the Chinese for women who have failed in facing the responsibilities of motherhood.

7. The Five Rulers of Hades

Back of this hall where hang the bell and the shoes of two women is a room lit from above, gloomy below, retired and awe-inspiring, where sit in solemn majesty five rulers of the Hades, whose original seats are on five peaks in China.

The Excesses and Extortions of Idolatry

At the time of the Revolution scarcely any pilgrims came to this place because it was believed that the Revolutionary party was against idolatry. Now that things are becoming more settled and Yuan Shih Kai is displacing men of the new type, idolatry is being slowly restored, though it is impossible to believe that the numbers of the pilgrims will ever be as they once were. I remember once in my boyhood days attending a temple festival when for three days and nights there was a continuous stream of pilgrims. Such sights are not known in these parts of China today.

It is interesting to know that much is said about the higher kinds of belief held both by Taoists and Buddhists. It is well to know what these beliefs are and to "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's." But the higher kinds of religious belief are practically unknown to the masses. The priests are dissolute. They are also generally extremely ignorant about the simplest elements of their own religion. They are, however, past-masters in one thing, the art of preying upon the fears and pocketbooks of helpless pilgrims. As far as the masses are concerned, the practical problem has nothing to do with their higher types of faith, because such are almost non-existent. Rather is it the task of the one who must reach such people - the task of knowing more fully, more sympathetically, the blackness, the horror and the cringing of human hearts who are thus enslaved. In all of these hellish devices there is a trace of an original moral element, and it is to this trace that the device still owes its moral authority, but exclude of this barest trace, is the great residue of extortion and of excess.

About the Author

Robert Ferris Fitch (1873-1954) was born in Shanghai, China, the son of missionary parents, George Field Fitch and his wife, Mary, of Ohio. The Rev. Dr. Robert F. Fitch served at Ningpo and also at Hangchow as president of Hangchow College from 1923 to 1931. in 1898 he married Isadore Kloss, a schoolteacher in Pennsylvania who was a graduate of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Six months later the couple sailed to China to serve as missionaries with the American Presbyterian Board of Missions. The couple had four children, three daughters and a son. Mrs. Fitch died March 27, 1936, at her home in Hangchow, which was called "Temple Roofs." Dr. Fitch died in California in 1954. His father, George Fitch, was head of the Presbyterian printing plant at Shanghai for many years.

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