In 2010, I was with Narrelle on the south bank of the Yangtze river in Fengdu, one of the towns that was demolished and completely rebuilt higher ground to cope with rising water levels after construction of the Three Gorges Dam. The point of coming here was that over on the north bank is Ming Shan, a row of hills covered with temples – in Chinese lore, the Ghost City where the dead go to be judged on their way to the afterlife.
So, to get from Fengdu to Ming Shan we caught a minibus west over the river bridge to Mingshan town, then changed to a fresh minibus for the run to the temples – a total of about 7km, at the time costing something like ¥10 all up.
Except that we were the only passengers in the second minibus, and the driver and his mate decided to stop off on a lonely stretch of road and demand ¥50 for the ride. After an argument we gave them the correct fare and got out – but they did too, getting ready to take the difference off us by force.
At that moment a black Audi with tinted windows came along the road – a local official of some sort. Narrell jumped out and stopped him, while I blurted out what was going in my bad Chinese. I’m not sure what the official said to the minibus crew, but they got back in their van and took off as fast as they could.
In fairness, this is one of the very few times in over five years of travel around China that I’ve been offered physical violence. We walked the final couple of kilometres to the temples, and later on found a cross-river ferry which took us straight back to Fengdu.
ANYWAY, Ming Shan. Spirits of the newly dead are put through three tests: they have to cross the middle span of the Naihe Bridge (evildoers fall through into hell); they are then examined by one of the judges of the afterlife, Yama; and finally they have to balance on a rock outside Tianzi Temple (again, malefactors fall off into the abyss).
Inside Tianzi Temple are sculptures of guardian demons, and dioramas of the ten layers of the underworld, where the virtuous are sorted for reincarnation and sinners are first boiled, pummelled, crushed or bisected etc according to their crimes.
In 2021 the print below came up at auction. It’s a passport to the underworld issued by the temple in Buddha’s name, so that the recently deceased will be judged favourably by Yama (here called Senluo, 森罗大帝) and let through to be reincarnated. It includes a sutra beginning with a standard formula, “Once, the Buddha was in Shravasti…”, and – in the large font characters on the left side – a mantra to Amitabha Buddha. The three square, reddish stains are the seal marks of Yama (阎王爷), Chenghuang (城隍the local City God), and the Fengdu County Magistrate (丰都县太爷).
The print is pretty large – about 35cm x 80cm – and was probably meant to be bought by relatives of the deceased and put in the coffin with them, though it also could have been burned.