In Chinese tradition, the king of the underworld, Yama, would judge the souls of the dead and apply punishments similar to those used in the real world. This account describes the torture of the burning pillar, which was a punishment devised by the tyrannical last king of the Shang dynasty, according to traditional histories.
Li Boyan, a native of Jinshui, was straight-forward and courageous. He suddenly was struck ill, but when his household brought in medicine, he refused it, saying, “My illness is not treatable by any medicine. Yama is absent from the underworld and he wants me to temporarily hold the seal of office. When I die, don’t bury me, just wait.”
That day he did indeed die. A mounted retinue guided him off into a palace, where he was presented with royal robes; his subordinates waited on him most respectfully. On the desk were piles of documents and files. One of them, about a person from Jiangnan, recorded that in his entire life he had seduced eighty-two girls from good families. Upon scrutiny, the evidence was not false. According to underworld law, he deserved the burning pillar.
Before the hall there was a bronze pillar eight or nine feet tall and about one arm span around; within it was hollow and contained blazing charcoal, making inside and exterior glow bright red. A gang of ghosts used spiked iron maces to flog the sinner and drive him to climb up, hands inching upwards and legs coiled round the pillar. Just as he reached the top, smoke and gas rose seething up, he exploded with a bang like a firecracker, and then fell back down. He lay curled up for a short time and then resuscitated. Again they flogged him and he exploded and fell as before. After three falls, he covered the ground like smoke and dispersed, unable to take shape again.
Another case was that of a fellow townsman named Wang, who had been accused by his slave-girl’s father of forcibly seizing his daughter. Wang was Li’s relative by marriage. Prior to this, a person was selling the slave-girl. Wang knew she had been come by illegally but, taking advantage of the low price, bought her anyway. At this point, Wang suddenly died.
The following day, his friend, Scholar Zhou, met him on the road and, knowing he was a ghost, fled into his study. Wang also followed him in. Zhou prayed to him in terror and asked him what he wanted. Wang said, “I must trouble you to be a witness in the underworld.”
Shocked, Zhou asked, “About what?”
“My slave-girl was purchased at the buying price, but now I have been mistakenly charged. You saw this affair with your own eyes, so I just need your honest word and nothing else.”
Zhou firmly refused, but as Wang left he said, “I fear it’s not up to you.”
Very soon, Zhou did indeed die and hastened together with Wang to the infernal interrogation. Seeing Wang, Li secretly retained a feeling of partiality. Suddenly a fire broke out in the palace, the flames burning the roof beams and ridge poles. Li was astounded and stood to the side. A clerk rushed in, saying, “The underworld is not the same as the human world – not a single selfish thought can be tolerated. Dispel any such thoughts at once and the fire will put itself out.”
Li collected his mind in silent contemplation and the fire immediately went out. After that, the accusation was examined. Wang and the slave-girl’s father argued back and forth. When Zhou was asked, he replied with the truth. As Wang had knowingly offended, he was punished with a whipping. When the whipping was complete, all of them were escorted back to life. Zhou and Wang both revived after three days.
Having attended to all matters, Li was taken back by horse-drawn carriage. Along the way he saw hundreds of souls, headless and with broken limbs, lying prostrate on the ground and wailing piteously. He stopped the carriage to question them closely and they were ghosts from other lands wishing to return to their native soil. Afraid of being separated by the mountain passes, they were begging for safe-conduct. Li said, “I was put in charge for three days and I’ve already been relieved of responsibility. What can I do about it?”
They all said, “Scholar Hu of South Village is going to hold a ceremony for the souls of the dead. Intercede for us and that can deliver.” Li promised.
Upon reaching home, the mounted retinue all left and then Li revived. Scholar Hu, whose taken name was Shuixin, was friendly with Li and, hearing he had come back to life, soon called to pay him a visit. Li abruptly asked, “When is your absolution ritual?”
Astonished, Hu said, “After the flames of war, as my wife and children are in one piece, my spouse and I have just formed this aspiration. We haven’t spoken of it to a single person. How did you know of it?”
Li told him everything. Hu exclaimed with a sigh, “Every word spoken in the bedroom is straightaway broadcast in the nether world – how frightening!” Then he respectfully promised and left.
The next day, Li went to Wang’s place and Wang was still lying exhausted. Seeing Li, he rose and saluted him respectfully, expressing gratitude for his protection. Li said, “The law doesn’t allow leniency. I hope you’re not suffering now.”
Wang told him, “No other problems, except the running sores from the flogging are festering.”
After twenty-four more days he began to recover; the rotten flesh on his buttocks dropped off and the scars were cane-like.
The Cryptohistorian says: The punishments of the underworld are crueller than those of the living world; the responsibilities are also more severe than in the living world. However, intercession is not allowed, which means those who suffer brutally can’t complain. Who says the region of the shades has no sunlight? It’s just a shame no fire burns the law courts that oversee the people!