Hell is scary but heaven is deathly dull

In the north of Taiwan County is Madou Daitian Temple. (Address: 72146台南市麻豆區關帝廟60號). It’s a large complex with multiple buildings and ‘attractions’ including accommodation for 2,300 pilgrims and a dining hall with 180 tables. There are several gods enshrined, including Wang Ye (王爺 pinyin: wáng yé) from the Taoist tradition, famous for expelling disease, and Guanyin (觀音 pinyin: guān yīn) a Bodhisattva of compassion from the Buddhist tradition, both wildly popular in southern Taiwan.

One of the attractions is Eighteen Hells (十八地獄 pinyin: shí bā dì yù) an underground series of diorama with automatons depicting (as the name suggests) the 18 levels of hell, each with its own court, clientele, and specific punishment.

You pay 40NTD (£1.10/US$1.25) for the pleasure, and descend a stairway to a dimly lit pathway which takes you to each level of hell in turn. (The exact number of levels in hell and the nature of the punishments therein range wildly depending on the source. Some give just 3 while others 134! In the Taiwan tradition, 18 seems to be agreed.) These hells are marked by a lot of coloured lighting gels and a sense that Hieronymus Bosch’s hellscape in The Garden of Earthly Delights has been fused with a Forbidden City costume drama. It is possible to scare yourself if you want (a little girl was weeping and asking her mother to take her away at the second level) and that is in part due to the unrelenting nature of level after level. Here then, are the Eighteen Hells.

First level of hell: Sinners are shown their misdeeds on replay and sentenced to different levels of hell depending on what they have done wrong.

Second level of hell: Corrupt officials are decapitated in the “tiger head” torture.

Third level of hell: Those who derelict their duty and bully the defenseless are put into a grinding machine and ground into a bloody pulp.

Fourth level of hell: Rapists of women, or adulterer women who collude with others to kill their husbands are tied to a large hollow metal cylinder with a fire lit at its base.

Fifth level of hell: Those who pursue their own gains and commit perjury have their eyes gouged out.

Sixth level of hell: Drug dealers, makers of adulterated pharmaceuticals and wines, are fried in cauldrons of oil.

Seventh level of hell: Those who swindle women and children for money, causing the dissolution of families and death, have their heart gored by a stone bore.

Eighth level of hell: Those who cut corners with illicit means for selfish gain are eaten by predators and snakes.

Ninth level of hell: Those who show no respect for elders, or who act against their parents, are disemboweled on a giant scale.

Tenth level of hell: Rapists, gang rapists and murders are dismembered by the five demons.

Eleventh level of hell: Thieves, kidnappers and con artists are put into a grinding machine and ground to a bloody pulp.

Twelfth level of hell: The four limbs of bandits, murderers and highwaymen are hacked off.

Thirteenth level of hell: Women who wilfully disobey their mothers- and fathers-in-law are crushed by giant rocks.

Fourteenth level of hell: Those who look for vulnerable women and take advantage of them, human traffickers and adulterers, have their faces disfigured and skinned by metal blades.

Fifteenth level of hell: Swindlers and those who provoke suicide are disemboweled.

Sixteenth level of hell: Gamblers, fraudsters, and those who sell counterfeits have their guts cut open.

Seventeenth level of hell: Rumour-mongers, those who make false accusations, aiders and abettors of manslaughter, have their tongues pulled out and their cheeks gored.

Eighteenth level of hell: Sinners are met by Meng Po (孟婆 pinyin: Mèng Pó) goddess of forgetfulness on Naihe Bridge (奈何桥 pinyin: Nàihé qiáo) and drink her tea of oblivion. They are then given a certificate to return to the world of mortals as an infant.

There is no eternal damnation in this conception of the underworld. After you’ve served your punishment (or punishments because you might have to visit more than one level!) you can drink the tea and forget about it.

Once you’ve left hell a sign indicates the exit (to the left) or heaven (to the right). It’s hard to resist heaven, even though it’s another 40NTD.

Arriving in heaven you are greeted as an emissary from a foreign land. 

And just like in hell there is a review of your life, only this time you’re hoping that the book on the desk has your name in it. 

Once in heaven you can listen to music…

…and drink tea…

…while watching some fairly ladies driving their phoenix chariots.

There is also dancing.

The rictus grin on this guy’s face as he claps along says is all: Is this really all there is?

He’s back in the next tableaux trying his best to enjoy this board game.

There are quite a lot of board games in heaven.

Heaven is much smaller than hell and once you get to the top of it you can come down to earth on a river flowing from the dragon’s mouth.

I left thinking that while hell was physical torture, heaven was mental torture. I don’t really know which is worse but I’m glad to still be in the world of the living. The most seductive prospect was probably Meng Po’s tea of oblivion… but that’s only available in hell! Surprisingly the experience did give rise to some reflection on my own moral values and how they sit in relation to those established by this particular Taiwanese conception of good and bad.