Beijing's holy hell
The Taoist Dongyue Temple in Chaoyang district of Beijing, first built during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), also hosts the Beijing Folk Customs Museum.[Photo by Su Weizhong/China Daily]
Meet the pantheon of staffers who administrate the ancient Taoist afterlife's bureaucracy at Dongyue Temple. Erik Nilsson visits the anthropomorphic office workers of the 76 departments and 18 levels of the netherworld's management in the Chinese capital.
You can literally go to holy hell in Beijing - all 76 departments spread among 18 levels. And visitors discover that exploring hell in the Chinese capital can be, well, surprisingly enjoyable.
While many modern people believe bureaucracy is hell, visitors to Beijing's Dongyue Temple see how ancient Taoists believed hell is a bureaucracy.
The compound physically and metaphorically replicates its structure.
Subdivisions are staffed by statues of pig people, lumpy demons bearing sabers and ox-headed ghouls brandishing spiked clubs.
Their colleagues are rabbits in robes, horses with double-pronged spears, prisoners in stocks, adorable tykes and virtually any combination of human-animal-demon you could imagine.
Many Taoists traditionally believed hell is the purview of Dongyue, the god of Taishan Mountain - one of China's "five great peaks" and home to the Taoist underworld - in today's Shandong province.
Shandong and several other places of pilgrimage throughout the country host holy sites devoted to Dongyue and the afterlife's administration.
A bizarre bureaucracy
In Beijing's version, life-size sculptures of eerie divinities "work" in "offices" that flank rooms of the courtyard, to manage this life and the next, with writing brushes and tritons in hand.
They staff such divisions as the Department of Demons and Monsters, the Department of Poisoning, and the Department of Controlling Bullying and Cheating.
On a lighter note, Dongyue's divine officialdom also runs the Department of Happiness, the Department of Loyalty and various bodies that monitor, evaluate and operationalize prosperity, longevity and joy.
The labyrinthine division of labor's high resolution comes into sharper focus upon exploring the complex.
The Department of Homeless Ghosts is separate from the Department of Wandering Ghosts. The Department of Signing Documents is outside the Department of Signed Documents. And the Department of Reclaiming Life is detached from the Department of Reincarnation.
It's structured as a leviathan in which souls could - and, apparently, according to signage, sometimes do - get a bit lost.
But the legal system has an appeals process - actually several layers - in case someone's good-bad-deed ratio is miscalculated.
The signage also seeks to laud the bureaucracy's multifold checks and balances, corrective mechanisms and impartiality that prevent and rectify mistakes.
Law beyond life
As you'd expect from hell, most of the paperwork and procedures administrate what follows morality's inevitable conclusion.
The particularly unfortunate must deal with the Department of Implementing 15 Kinds of Violent Death - which include, but are not limited to, starvation; clubbing; dying in battle; animal attacks, floods; insanity; "falling into an abyss"; "tricks by evil people or ghosts"; disease; and suicide.
Essentially, mortality and its consequences are conceptualized as a series of legalistic formalities.
First, an office determines that the death that has occurred has in fact occurred. Another initially reviews their deeds.
These are evaluated by the Department of Measurements, which standardizes the quantification of good and evil acts, and rewards and punishments. (It also functions to remind living merchants not to rig their measurements to deceive buyers, lest they be subject to the aforementioned criteria after death or by penalty in the mortal realm.)
If the individual lived improperly, an indictment is filed, followed by a warrant, in which case law enforcement detains the soul for court.
Depending on how they're judged, the deceased are then assigned to damnation or reincarnation through the departments of Insect Birth, Water Birth (aquatic animals), Egg Birth (birds and reptiles) or Mammal Birth.
The most virtuous become either human in the next life or - if particularly righteous - officials in, and of, the afterlife.
Whichever way, it's a long and byzantine series of proceedings between dying and whatever follows.
Also, those who are deemed to have perished before their time due to suicide or accidents become poltergeists until processed by the Department of Unjust Death, which transfers them to the Department of Resurrection, which returns their souls to mortal bodies.
And, as if to put an exclamation point on hell's meta-bureaucratic configuration, hell has a Department of Hell inside it.