The Eighteen Levels of Chinese Hell

Many Chinese believe heaven/paradise is out of reach of ordinary mortals. However, hell is a harsh reality and the souls of the dead must go.

Buddhists brought this concept of hell to China from India, and over time, this belief grew wings and picked up baggage as it spread. Taoism, Buddhism and traditional Chinese folk religions believe that the souls of the dead must experience several tests before reaching the gates of hell, where demons demand money to enter, which might explain why many Chinese burn paper money at funerals to make sure beloved family members have some for the journey.

one of the eighteen levels to hell

There are eighteen levels on this journey—each one a test. For criminals, the souls are heavy and the trip long and painful. Chinese almanacs graphically illustrated the punishments. Good souls were light and made the journey quickly.

Today, these beliefs are probably more alive in rural China than urban areas where Mao’s Cultural Revolution had more of an impact driving out old beliefs.  Most Taiwanese and many in Hong Kong still hold to these beliefs.

If given a choice, which hell would you select—Chinese, Islamic or Christian?

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

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2 Responses to The Eighteen Levels of Chinese Hell

  1. Y Chan says:

    I am sorry again.

    Your article is not quite right.

    It is true that in Buddhism there are 18 levels of hell, but when you died, the demons (Custom Officers of Hell), do not ask for money to let you in.

    In Buddhism, after your death, you will be reborned again into six categories of sentient being according to your karma —- diva, asura (ie, angry gods), human, animals, ghost and hell residents. If you are a “good boy” you may not go to hell at all when you die.

    After Buddhism came to China, this believe was modified over time. The Buddhist God of Hell, King Yama, became a judge, who delivers a verdict on whether you are going to hell (and to what level of hell) or reborn as another human, or animal, or ghost based on what you had done during your lifetime. Something like St. Peters at the Heavens Gate.

    And as the culture developed, the underworld is getting more complex and human like. It has a King (Yama) who has a “government” of his own, with a compete set of cities and villages and rivers, even with a “Central Bank of Hell”.

    So, in order for the dead relatives to “live” comfortably “down there”, people here burn paper money to deposit into the Central Bank of Hell. Go to Hong Kong and attend a funeral ritual and you will see people burning paper money, servants, houses, cars, boats, even (not joking) computers and televisions to be sent to hell for their dead love ones to use.

    The next development? May be Americans demand that the Chinese Hell will adopt a multi-party political democratic system and hold an election every four years, with King Yama as a contitutional monarchy.

    • I was laughing as I read, “May be Americans demand that the Chinese Hell will adopt a multi-party political democratic system and hold an election every four years, with King Yama as a contitutional monarchy.”

      However, it would probably be true.

      Thanks for the corrections. My sources may have been wrong.

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