- Museum number
One of a set of 15 'Hell scrolls'. This one is the first of the 'eastern scrolls' and shows three enlightened beings seated on lotus scrolls in the sky and the fiery punishments of hell below.
- Production date
- 1940 (? Used until 1967)
- Curator's comments
- This is one of a set of 15 'hell scrolls' collected in Taipei County Taiwan. They were used for a number of years by non-celibate monks (the Chen brothers) as part of the complex funerary arrangements of the region. The style of the paintings could be described as ‘cursory’ or even cartoon like and the calligraphy is written in Kaishu script (as is often the case within the religious sphere as it allows all viewers to understand it). Their style reflects the fact that these scrolls were used at the funerals of ordinary people in Taipei County.
When in use the scrolls surrounded a provisional altar table during the first part of a funeral, this is the time when merit making rituals (zuo gongde) are performed. They are set up to face south in a reflection of the ‘imperial metaphor’ (Feuchtwang 2001) which is found through much popular religion in China. Before the altar the monks read the scriptures and performed rites which enabled them to cross over into the invisible world of the dead and rescue the soul of the deceased from purgatory – thus these scrolls were used for complex mortuary rites of release. The space created by the correct setting up of the scrolls is a place of communication between the Yin (spirit) and Yang (living) worlds. During the funeral the souls of the dead are guided through hell by the monks. The role of the monks is to negotiate, control and transcend the divide between the spirit and living worlds through the use of various ritual techniques including the burning of offerings, complex hand gestures, aerial writing, incantations and sutra recitation. Funerals must transform the dead into ancestors – this process does not happen automatically but rather demands these complex and elaborate rituals. The dead must be cut off from the living or there is a danger of them becoming hungry ghosts. They must be re-housed – on earth this must take the form of an appropriate grave site situated by geomancy and in the spirit world the soul must be re-housed away from the tortures of purgatory in the upper regions of the eternal world – and it is for this process that scrolls such as these are used by the monks.
The scrolls are divided into sections (intellectually by Stephan Feuchtwang based on their position in the ritual as well as what they depict). The first section (2008,3029.1-5) is of Bodhisattvas (Pusa) and Buddhas (Fo) –these compassionate beings can be called upon to intercede on behalf of the dead. This section was placed in the centre of the altar. The first three consist of images of Dizang Wang and the next two are of the Bodhisattvas Wenshu (Manjushri) with a lion and Puxian (Samantabhadra) with an elephant.
Next (2008,3029.6-11) are placed depictions of the ten courts of hell and the tortures meted out to those convicted in them (several courts are depicted on some of the scrolls, so that six scrolls represent all ten of these courts). The courts are depicted with the judge, his retinue of assistants, clerks and servants (the Yin world is a reflection of the Yang and so the same types of bureaucracy are found in both). Other well known scenes include the karma wheel, the blood pit and horse-face and ox-head (demons who know the records of sins of each new soul to enter purgatory). Hell’s beadles and the karma mirror can also be seen.
Then there are also two scrolls showing the 24 scenes of filial piety (2008,3029.12 / 13) and two scenes from Journey to the West (Xiyouji or ‘Monkey’ 2008,3029.14 / 15). Both of these show the possibility of being redeemed.
Such scrolls were rarely collected in the past as they were considered inauspicious by many Chinese intellectuals due to the association with death (although such items are being collected today). Moreover they have been characterised as ‘folk art’ by many Western collectors. They are thus rather rare but provide fascinating insight into popular religion and cosmological understandings. Of relevance in the British Museum collections there are Japanese 'hell scrolls' as well as similar materials in the Stein collection and Chinese ethnographic collections (including Chinese shadow puppets of characters from hell and paper spirit offerings) that provide interesting comparative materials. There is also an extensive collection of ‘spirit (or hell) money’ in Coins and Medals as well as in the Asian ethnographic collection.
Teiser Stephen F. 1988 "Having Once Died and Returned to Life": Representations of Hell in Medieval China Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Dec., 1988), pp. 433-464
Donelly, Neal 1997. A Journey Through Chinese Hell: The ‘Hell Scrolls of Taiwan’. University of Washington Press.
- Not on display
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Collected during anthropological fieldwork - given by the makers (the Chen brothers) to Prof Feuchtwang when they commissioned new scrolls and so no longer needed this set.
- Registration number