bian-wen text shows economic development in hell

punishment with iron wheel in hell

A bian-wen text copied in Dunhuang (China) in 921 describes highly industrialized punishments in hell:

Iron discs continuously plunged into her body from out of the air,
Fierce fires, at all times, were burning beneath her feet;

Bronze-colored crows pecked at her heart ten thousand times over,
Molten iron poured on top of her head a thousand repetitions;
One might ask whether the tree of knives up ahead were the most painful,
But can it compare with the cleaving mill which chops men’s waists in two?[1]

The iron discs and the cleaving mill are images of industrial machinery.  Aspects of the natural landscape, mountains, trees, thorns, crows, dogs, and snakes, become fabricated torments: knife mountains, sword trees, metal thorns, bronze-colored crows preternaturally pecking, copper dogs breathing smoke, and iron snakes belching fire.[2]

Punishments for illicit sexual passion distort sexual imagery into technological torments:

Women lay on the iron beds with nails driven through their bodies,
Men embraced the hot copper pillars, causing their chests to rot away;
The iron drills and long scissors were sharp as lance-tips and sword-edges,
The teeth of the ploughs with their sharp metal points were like awls.
When their intestines are empty, they are at once filled with hot iron pellets,
If they cry out that they are thirsty, molten iron is used to irrigate them;[3]

This imagery of punishment suggests imaginative effects of traumatic industrial development.[4]  Much technological development occurred in China during the Tang Dynasty period (618-907).  Metal industries, along with an industrial workforce, became prominent in Western Europe in the nineteenth century.  At least in hell, these industries apparently were prominent in China a millennium earlier.

Punishment in Dante’s Inferno is less technological and more organic and interpersonal.  In the Inferno, the punished are confined in tombs of fire, brawl in mire, are blown about in storms, and are frozen in a lake.  The punished are consistently identified as specific persons with particular histories.  They regularly engage in personal conversations with Dante.  Dante’s hell doesn’t emphasize masses of persons subject to impersonal, external machinery.  Dante authored the Inferno in Italy between 1308 and 1321. Unlike the Chinese bian-wen text, copied in Dunhuang in 921, the Inferno reflects the socio-economic structure of a commercial city-state.

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Image credit: Baodingshan, Dazu, rock carving, c. 1200 GC.  From K.E. Brashier’s superb website of Chinese hell scrolls.  Here’s a wider image of the iron wheel punishment.


[1] Transformation Text on Mahāmaudgalyāyana Rescuing His Mother from the Underworld (Dunhuang manuscript, S2614), trans. Mair, Victor H. (1983) Tun-huang popular narratives. Cambridge studies in Chinese history, literature, and institutions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) p. 99.

[2] Id. pp. 99, 100, 105-6 provide the additional details cited above.

[3] Id. p. 102.

[4] China has long had a highly developed state bureaucracy.  The administrative machinery of this hell includes highly developed bureaucracy.  For example, when Maudgalyāyana, searching for his mother in hell, asks King Yama for information, King Yama summons his “karma-watcher, fate-investigator, and book-keeper.”  The karma-watcher reports:

Three years have already passed since Lady Nīladhi [Maudgalyāyana’s mother] died.  The legal records of the criminal proceeding against her are all in the case-book of the Commandant of Mount T’ai, who is Recorder for the Bureau of the Underworld.

Id. p. 95.

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