T'ai-Tsung in Hell: A unique look at the Chinese Underworld
Religion has been a part of almost every culture hundreds of years, whether it is Christianity in the western world, or Islam in the Middle East. Each religion has different views, and beliefs. Chinese Buddhism is no exception. Chinese Buddhism, like most other religions, has an afterlife. Chinese Buddhists believe in many heavens and hells. Sinners are punished in hell while those who have done good work and followed the Dharma during their lives prosper and are reborn. In some Chinese stories, a few people journey to the nether world. Through these stories we learn how the nether world judges its occupants and the consequences of their judgment. One of these stories is T'ai-Tsung in Hell. T'ai-Tsung in Hell varies greatly compared to other journeys to the nether world in other stories.
T'ai-Tsung in Hell is about an emperor of the T’ang, named T'ai-Tsung who is wandering the nether world thinking about the military expeditions and engagements he was a part of and all the men he killed. He knows he has not “paid the penalty for those sins of former days” (Waley 165) and cannot return to the world of the living until he has done so. He is then led by an escort to be put on trial (judged) by the Assessor Ts'ui Tzu-yü. At the end of the story, T’ai-Tsung receives a list of good works from Ts'ui Tzu-yü that he must complete if he is to be able to return to the world of the living.
While nothing in the story seems drastically different from other journeys to the nether world, there is one significant difference. The Assessor treats T’ai-Tsung kindly and helps him in many ways. This did not happen for K’ung K’o or Chai T’ai when they went to the nether world. When K’ung K’o and Chai T’ai had their sins and good works weighed, they were impartially judged and told not to lie about their lives. This shows when the magistrate says to Chai T’ai, “What sins and transgressions have you committed? ...we have dispatched emissaries from the Six Departments, who reside permanently in the human world, recording good and evil point by point, and the record is explicit and detailed. You cannot get away with a lie.” (Kao 167) Unlike Chai T’ai, T’ai-Tsung does not share his sins or good deeds; instead the assessor makes changes to T’ai-Tsung’s records with his approval. Ts'ui Tzu-yü changes the emperor’s destiny so his rule is expanded 10 years. He also gives T’ai-Tsung the answer to the question he asked that will give T’ai-Tsung passage back to the world of the living. In return for all of his help, T’ai-Tsung offers Ts'ui Tzu-yü a government post in the world of the living, which was Ts'ui Tzu-yü goal all along. Although he was treated better than others in the nether world, T’ai-Tsung still had to do good works in the world of the living to atone for his sins.
T'ai-Tsung in Hell also differs from other stories involving journeys to the nether world by leaving out detailed descriptions of the underworld, but…