Like so many other concepts in Chinese mythology, the Underworld is a tangled mix of DAOist, Buddhist and traditional folk legend. It’s not actually underground but housed in an enormous mountain on the other side of the astral plane. But all legends agree that it’s a dark and sinister place something like a prison complex — with ample torture facilities.
We don’t want to worry you, but Hell is open to everyone and the invitation is not negotiable. When you die, officers place your soul under arrest and march you to the office of YEN-LO-WANG, the King of Hell. There you are registered, given an identity card, and sucked into the mire of Underworld bureaucracy. No doubt it’s all computerized by now.
Then it’s off to the Court of QIN-GUANG-WANG for inspection in his Mirror of Retribution. Particularly virtuous souls may find themselves excused from further judgment and sent on vacation to paradise. But the vast majority will have to be punished for Earthly sins. It’s the rules.
Some of the punishments are very nasty indeed, and to add insult to injury there are — like most government offices — pious slogans wherever you look. It’s all very well being reminded that virtue is a good thing, but when you’re about to be plunged into boiling oil for the hundredth time you really have other things to worry about.
FENG-DU is divided into several courts or levels, each with its own set of departments and ruling deity. The exact number of courts is variously given as four, five, eight and ten. We’ve chosen to include ten as it seems better value.
When your agony is complete and you’ve repented for all you’re worth, it’s time to be reborn. You’re summoned to the Tenth Court, where ZHUANG-LUN-WANG decides the manner of your next existence. (Human being or slug?) Then Lady MENG-PO gives you the Tea of Forgetfulness, which erases your memory and ensures that you completely forget all the punishments you’ve just been suffering. There is a very good reason for this, but we don’t know what it is.
Finally you are given a free ride on the Wheel of Life. Round and round you go, faster and faster, until you shoot off into the void and land in the body of a newborn baby. Or, if you haven’t repented enough, the body of a slug.