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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.
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 地獄
Simplified Chinese 地狱
Literal meaning earth prison
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabet địa ngục
Korean name
Hangul 지옥
Literal meaning hell, underworld
Japanese name
Kanji 地獄

Diyu (Chinese: 地獄; Sanskrit: Naraka) is the realm of the dead or "hell" in Chinese mythology. It is loosely based on a combination of the Buddhist 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.


  • Conceptions of Diyu 1
  • Ten Courts of Hell 2
  • Capital 3
  • Eighteen Levels of Hell 4
  • Alternate names for hell 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • External links 8

Conceptions of Diyu

According to ideas from Taoism, Buddhism[1][2][3] and traditional Chinese folk religion, Diyu is a purgatory which 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.[4][5] 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 (Chinese: 枉死城; pinyin: Wǎng Sǐ Chéng) designed to house those who died with grievances that have yet to be redressed.[6]

Ten Courts of Hell

Ming dynasty (16th century) glazed earthenware figurines representing three of the ten Yama Kings.
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" (Chinese: 十殿閻羅; pinyin: Shídiàn Yánluó) 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)
1 King Qinguang
1st day of 2nd lunar month Life and death and fortunes of all humans Believed to be Jiang Ziwen
2 King Chujiang
1st day of 3rd lunar month Sañjīva, Arbuda
3 King Songdi
8th day of 2nd lunar month Kālasūtra, Nirarbuda
4 King Wuguan

18th day of 2nd lunar month Saṃghāta, Aṭaṭa
5 King Yanluo
8th day of 1st lunar month Raurava, Hahava Believed to be Bao Zheng
6 King Biancheng
8th day of 3rd lunar month Mahāraurava, Huhuva, and City of Innocent Deaths
7 King Taishan
27th day of 3rd lunar month Tapana, Utpala
8 King Dushi
1st day of 4th lunar month Pratāpana, Padma
9 King Pingdeng
8th day of 4th lunar month Avīci, Mahāpadma
10 King Zhuanlun
17th day of 4th lunar month Sending souls for reincarnation


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 concept of the eighteen hells started in the Tang dynasty. The Buddhist text Wen Diyu Jing (問地獄經) mentioned 134 worlds of hell, but was simplified to the Eighteen Levels of Hell 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 following is a list of common punishments and tortures in the hells:

  • Mountain of Knives: Sinners are thrown off cliffs and land on mountainous terrain with sharp blades sticking out. Some depictions show offenders climbing trees with knives or sharp thorns sticking out of trunks and branches.
  • Cauldron torture: Sinners are fried in oil cauldrons.
  • Dismemberment: Sinners are dismembered by various means, including sawing, slicing into half, mashing/pounding into pulp, being crushed by rocks/boulders, being run over by vehicles, etc.
  • Grinding torture: Sinners are put into a grinding machine and ground into a bloody pulp.
  • Burning: Sinners are set aflame or cast into infernos.
  • Paolao torture: Sinners are stripped naked and tied to a large hollow metal cylinder with a fire lit at its base.
  • Boiling liquid torture: Boiling liquids are forced down sinners' throats or poured on parts of their bodies.
  • Tortures involving removal of body parts or organs: Tongue ripping, eye gouging, teeth extraction, heart digging, disembowelment, skinning, etc.
  • Ice World: Sinners are frozen in ice. Some depictions show unclothed sinners suffering frostbite in an icy world. Their bodies eventually fall apart or break into pieces.
  • Scales and hooks torture: Sinners are pierced with hooks and hung upside-down. Some depictions show sinners having nails hammered into their bodies.
  • Pool of Blood: Sinners are cast into a pool of filthy blood, where they drown. Blood spills from all bodily orifices.
  • Tortures involving animals: Sinners are trampled by cattle, gored by animals with horns or tusks, mauled or eaten by predators, stung or bitten by poisonous species, etc.
  • Avīci: The period of suffering in this chamber is the longest. It is reserved for sinners who have committed heinous crimes, including the Five Grave Offences.

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.[7][8][9][10][11][12]

Alternate names for hell

Among the more common Chinese names for the Underworld are:

Other terminology related to hell includes:

See also

  • Naraka (Buddhism), the Buddhist concept of Hell which is related to the Chinese concept of Diyu
  • Yama (East Asia), the wrathful deity who rules Hell in East Asian mythology
  • Ksitigarbha, a bodhisattva who vowed never to achieve buddhahood until the hells are emptied
  • Maudgalyayana, one of the Buddha's disciples and the protagonist of the Chinese tale Mulian Rescues His Mother
  • Meng Po, a deity who serves souls a potion that makes them forget their past lives before they go for reincarnation
  • Ox-Head and Horse-Face, hell guards in Chinese mythology
  • Heibai Wuchang, hell guards in Chinese mythology
  • Ghost Festival, a traditional Buddhist and Taoist festival celebrated in some Asian countries
  • Hell money, joss paper designed to resemble banknotes and meant to be burnt as offerings to the dead
  • Hell Scroll (Nara National Museum), a Japanese scroll depicting hells, kept at the Nara National Museum
  • Journeys to the Under-World, a Taiwanese novel narrating a journey through Diyu


  1. ^ "诸经佛说地狱集要 [Collection of Buddhist Texts about Hell]". (in Chinese). Retrieved 8 January 2015. 
  2. ^ 萧登福 [Xiao, Dengfu] (August 1988). "汉魏六朝佛教之“地狱”说(上) [Conceptions of "Hell" in the Han, Wei and Six Dynasties (Part 1)]". 东方杂志 [Eastern Magazine] (in Chinese) 22 (2): 34–40. Retrieved 8 January 2015. 
  3. ^ 萧登福 [Xiao, Dengfu] (August 1988). "汉魏六朝佛教之“地狱”说(下) [Conceptions of "Hell" in the Han, Wei and Six Dynasties (Part 2)]". 东方杂志 [Eastern Magazine] (in Chinese) 22 (3): 23–30. Retrieved 8 January 2015. 
  4. ^ 印順法師 [Yinshun]. "華雨集第四冊 [Hua Yu Collection Volume 4]". (in Chinese). Retrieved 8 January 2015. 
  5. ^ "泰山崇拜与东岳泰山神的形成 [Origins of the Worship of Mount Tai and the Deity of the Eastern Mountain Mount Tai]". (in Chinese). 3 March 2008. Retrieved 8 January 2015. 
  6. ^ "三. 枉死城亡魂戒改 [3. Rehabilitating the Souls of the Dead in the City of Innocent Deaths]". (in Chinese). Retrieved 8 January 2015. 
  7. ^ )Notebook of Yong An (Yong'an BijiXue, Fucheng. .
  8. ^ "瀕死經驗(六則) [Near-death Experience (Six Parts)]]". http://佛教淨土宗.net/%E5%9B%A0%E6%9E%9C%E6%84%9F%E6%87%89%E4%BA%8B%E8%B9%9F/%E7%9B%AE%E9%8C%84.aspx (in Chinese). Retrieved 8 January 2015. 
  9. ^ among the Dunhuang Manuscripts]"Huan Hun Ji"敦煌文献中的《还魂记》写本 [Manuscript of . The Grottoes of Dunhuang Information Network (in Chinese). Retrieved 8 January 2015. 
  10. ^ 潘重規 [Pan, Chonggui] (1994). "九、唐太宗入冥記 [Volume 6: Chapter 9: Emperor Taizong of Tang's Journey to the Underworld]". 敦煌變文集新書 [Dunhuang Bian Wenji Xinshu] (in Chinese). China: 文津出版社 [Wen Jin Publishing House]. Retrieved 8 January 2015. 
  11. ^ 黎澍 [Li, Shu] (March 2006). 慧淨法師 [Huijing], ed. 地獄見聞錄 [Records of Observations of Hell] (in Chinese) (3rd ed.). Taipei: 淨土宗文教基金會 [Pure Land Sect Foundation]. Retrieved 8 January 2015. 
  12. ^ 泰国上校真实因果轮回见证

External links

  • 18層地獄:看看你會進幾層 (18 Levels of Hell: See which level you will end up in). (in Chinese). 12 July 2005. Retrieved 8 January 2015.
  • 佛說十八泥犁經 (The Buddha speaks about the eighteen hells). Digital Library & Museum of Buddhist Studies (in Chinese). College of Liberal Arts, National Taiwan University. Retrieved 8 January 2015.
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