- Museum number
Figure of an assistant to the Judge of Hell decorated in polychrome enamels with cold-painted details. This large-scale ceramic sculpture is in the form of an angry frowning male official with a green face and hands, a long yellow beard, elongated earlobes, large staring eyes and cold-painted red pursed lips. He is standing with his legs astride on a low rectangular base. He is dressed in the robes of a scholar-mandarin which are coloured aubergine with a round neck worn over a white under-robe. It is secured around the waist and chest by a belt made up of rectangular belt plaques with a gold dragon belt buckle. His black gauze hat, also typical of a style worn by literate men in the Ming era, has a domed crown and is high-standing at the back forming two peaks. Beneath his left arm he is holding a large register of several volumes of scrolls and the fingers of his right hand are poised to hold a brush-pen. Holes for inserting a pole or hands for carrying the figure or installing it in an architectural context are made on either side.
- Production date
- 1522-1620 (circa)
Height: 136 centimetres
Width: 39 centimetres
Depth: 31 centimetres
- Curator's comments
Ten Judges or Kings preside over Chinese Buddhist 'Hell', which resembles a court room where all the souls of the dead must present themselves to these Judges in turn to be tried and to account for all the good and bad deeds which they performed in the mortal world - a process which can last up to three years. The 'Shi Wangjing' [Scripture of the Ten Kings] is the textural basis for this iconography, written by an anonymous author from Sichuan in the eighth or ninth century and surviving in illustrated form from Dunhuang manuscripts, including one dated ad 908 in the Musee Guimet, Paris. Hell, in the Chinese psyche, is effectively a place which is both a locale of judgement and an administrative centre for the underworld. Although Hell deals with an assessment of life and death, it is not a place like a Christian Hell which is a solely a domain for punishment and torture.
These ten Judges of Hell are represented as high-ranking bureaucrats who keep with them all the trappings of officialdom. They are generally depicted seated on a throne in front of a screen and behind a desk on which there are an unfurled scroll, brush-pen, ink stone and ink. Before committing their verdict on the soul to paper they pay heed to the testimonies of two standing scholarly officials who have collated all the good and bad deeds of the soul's lifetime as evidence for the court. Also in attendence are demons and the tortured souls.
Hobson suggested that the present figure is one of the ten Judges of Buddhist Hell and more specifically the President of the Fifth Court of Hell, 'Yen-lo-Wang', who is middle-aged with a fierce expression, beard and judge's cap'. Rather than the Judge himself, however, who would be seated on a throne, it is more likely that this figure is one of the two scholarly attendants whose function is to draw to the Judge's attention all crimes and misdemeanours. He is holding rolls of documents referring perhaps to the names of many men and women who must appear before the Judge and to those souls' wicked deeds. Exhibited in 1998 in the Yamamoto Bunkakan, Nara, was an earlier Yuan painting of the Judge of the Fifth Court of Hell and his assistants. In the painting both the assistants and the Judge have coloured faces. Lothar Ledderose has explored suites of such paintings, made in sets of ten, in great detail. Sets were made, for example, in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, in the thirteenth century.
Hell Judges and their assistants were kept extremely busy as the Tenth Judge of Hell says to his clerk in the romantic play the Peony Pavilion, written in 1598:
"Strung up by the hair
men's bodies are light
to the weight of their sins.
Like jailers of the court of Qin
we process their cases
by the hundred weight".
A seated Judge of Hell figure, measuring 79 cm in height, is in the Museum fur Ostasiatische Kunst in Cologne, Germany. It is similarly modelled with the same type of expression, green face, yellow beard and aubergine robes as the British Museum's figure. Yet this figure of the Judge wears a different type of black gauze hat, holds just a tiny scroll, perhaps recording an individual's biographical details, in his left hand and is seated on a throne. Both ceramic figures would have been installed with other similar figures and paintings in a temple hall devoted to representations of Hell. Such tableaux would have served as a warning to temple goers of the consequences of an unrighteous life. The glaze covering both figures is reminiscent of that found on architectural tiles of the middle to late Ming period. Indeed, the figure was probably made at one of the factories specializing in the manufacture of tiles. Many of these were located in Shanxi province.
Minor deities in the Buddhist pantheon also entered the folk tradition. Thus the Judges of Hell and their assistants became regular figures in secular folk literature. The dead had to account to them for their deeds in the same way as the living did to their secular counterparts. In the novel loosely based upon the pilgrimage of the monk Xuan Zang to India, assembled under the title "The Journey to the West", several encounters with the bureaucracy of the underworld are described. One underworld official tells how he made the transition from the position of magistrate in life to a similar one after death:
- On display (G33/od)
- Acquisition date
- Registration number