The traditional Chinese conception of death is that after someone dies, they go to the underworld. This realm is governed by Yama, widely believed to be its most powerful figure. But according to most Chinese philosophical and religious literature, the bodhisattva Ksitigarbha is the true king of the underworld.
The relationship between Yama and Ksitigarbha is fascinating. While Ksitigarbha in theory holds ultimate authority over the underworld, the real power resides with Yama. You might think of Yama as the prime minister and Ksitigarbha as the king or queen in constitutional monarchies, or the relationship between supreme leader and the president in other states.
An account of this system can be found in “What the Master Would Not Discuss,” a collection of supernatural tales by the Qing Dynasty author Yuan Mei. After a local judge in eastern China passed away, his relative, Xu, vowed to perform good deeds in his honor, and recited the Diamond Sutra 800 times a day. After a few days, Xu dreamt that Yama summoned him for an audience. Yama complained that, because the deceased judge had been too harsh in life, Yama had to judge him severely in death. But the sudden arrival of the Buddha Vajradhara — one of heaven’s divine generals linked to the Diamond Sutra — had disrupted his work, refusing to leave until Yama released the judge into his custody.
Vajradhara far outranked Yama, so the latter let the judge go. For reasons never fully made clear, Vajradhara released the judge on the road, and the latter fled to Ksitigarbha. “All this happened because you recited the Diamond Sutra!” said Yama to the dreaming Xu. “Luckily Ksitigarbha does things by the book, and he kept Vajradhara from causing any more trouble. I’ve called you here to tell you to stop carelessly summoning deities and disrupting the normal working order of the underworld!”
The tale hints at how the separation of powers works in the underworld. Yama manages the day-to-day operations of the realm, while Ksitigarbha remains aloof. Yet Ksitigarbha’s subordinate Vajradhara can burst in and cause trouble at any time. Meanwhile, it is obvious that Ksitigarbha’s power far exceeds Yama’s own, despite the fact that he is rarely seen.
Yama’s powers are limited because the king of the underworld is an official position with a set term of office. This reflects a longstanding trait of low-level Chinese bureaucracy, namely that a certain amount of turnover is good for the political system. As the underworld is teeming with posthumous politicians, there is no shortage of potential bureaucrats: The Ming Dynasty author Xie Zhizhe lists famous historical figures believed to have served as Yama according to ancient texts, including a renowned Sui Dynasty general, three Song-era prime ministers, and a famously honest Ming official. At the end of their term, the incumbent Yama is reborn in the human world.
There are even accounts of Yama resigning early. According to a description found in a Song-era compendium of the supernatural, “Further Records of Yi Jian,” four years after Ma Guangzu — prime minister under Emperor Duzong — passed away, one of his retainers, Lin Yuexi, also died. In the underworld, Lin ran into Ma, who was then serving as the lord of Mount Tai, a high-ranking official post.
Ma introduced Lin to the then-Yama, Jiang Wanli, another former Song prime minister. To Lin’s shock, both Jiang and Ma expressed a desire to leave their positions, return to the human realm, and be reborn as ordinary people. (To make a somewhat loose analogy, imagine if a country’s president and prime minister both resigned at the same time.) With their help, Lin was returned to the human world, where he had a Taoist priest perform a magic ritual releasing the two former leaders from their duties and allowing them to be reincarnated as well.
Yama and the lord of Mount Tai are the two highest-ranking officials in the underworld after Ksitigarbha. The position of lord of Mount Tai dates back to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220) and is primarily concerned with matters of life and death, as well as of the soul. Yama, on the other hand, is a localized form of a Buddhist deity.
Other historical accounts claim that the role of Yama has on occasion been filled — on a part-time basis — by living people, who would serve as officials in the human world by day and then travel to the underworld in their sleep to work there at night. According to an account by the Qing-era writer Wu Zhichang, one scholar-official was summoned to the underworld to act as Yama and underwent a formal initiation ceremony. In practice, however, the man was wholly unfit for office and was Yama in name only. He was a mere puppet of the judges, who heard all the cases before passing him documents to stamp. Wu asks indignantly at the end of the piece: “Why did they find a talented scholar just to keep up appearances?”
The bureaucracy of the Chinese underworld offers subtle insights into our own society. The realm of the dead is ruled by a system of collective leadership. There are 10 Yama-governed halls in the underworld, and each Yama has a particular set of duties, with no one subordinate to any other.
But neither does underworld governance function like a modern political system with multiple power centers acting as a check on all the others. While the literature is relatively clear about the scope of each Yama’s powers, the majority of stories that take place there are written in far vaguer terms, referring only to one Yama, suggesting his power is distributed and decentralized.
Yama’s role is designed to preserve the moral character of acting officials and prevent corruption from setting in on a systemic level. Traditional Chinese beliefs on reincarnation and the attainment of godhood dictate that if widely appreciated officials in life are unable to serve again in death, then the whole purpose of the underworld — to punish evildoers and reward the good — will be called into question. Therefore, the logic goes, it is natural for upright and incorruptible officials to discharge their duties in the underworld without losing sight of the systemic constraints on their power.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Yang Xiaozhou and Matthew Walsh.