This large enamel on biscuit porcelain figure, is seated with his feet apart, his cupped hands holding a peach. He is wearing long flowing yellow robes and a yellow cap with the Chinese character for king (wang 王). He has a striking blue lined face with a snarling wide mouth, baring pointed teeth. His long beard, flows down in sections onto his shoulder and neck. His robe is decorated with an incised design of green dragons and tri-coloured clouds on a yellow ground. Flowing brown ribbons, knotted with yellow circular pendants, hang down the front of his robes and sleeves. His brown shoes peep out from under his long robes.
This figure represents one the Daoist Kings of Hell Yanluo Wang (閻羅王), also known as King Yama. He is a judge of the Underworld, commanding an army of animal headed demons. His origins lie in Buddhism, where he is known as Yama Raja - a protector of Buddhist law (Dharmapala) and underworld judge. He determines the fate of souls, deciding on their rebirth based on their good or bad karmic deeds in life. With the transmission of Indian Buddhism across East Asia, the concept of the Yama judge also entered China.
He re-emerges in popular Chinese Daoist culture, as Yanluo, the Fifth King of the Ten Courts Hell. These ten courts were each presided over by a Judge of Hell (Yamas of the Ten Courts 十殿閻王 ), who ruled over this transitory place - each judging a different category of misdemeanours. In this purgatory, souls were held accountable for their actions in life and could undergo gruesome punishments. Those that had led exemplary lives, could obtain early release and entry into heaven. But the majority had to go before all ten Magistrates, to atone for their misdeeds in life. It was assumed very few could bypass these courts of hell, so earthly funerary rituals were designed to get the deceased through the ten Courts of Hell as quickly as possible. After the soul had passed through each court, receiving the necessary castigations, they would be reincarnated accordingly –but only after taking a potion to forget their previous life. However bad someone had been, this purgatory was not eternal, all souls eventually being reincarnated. This is very similar to the Buddhist idea of the unending cycle of life, death, and rebirth (saṃsāra) and the notion of cosmic continuity.
In Chinese imagery, the Hell’s Judges are usually depicted as government officials, often seated on thrones with an severe bearing. Each magistrate ruled over their particular hells with his own staff, who read the recorded misdeeds and aided in the execution of the various punishments. Each of the hells with their corresponding penances, are regularly depicted in Chinese art. Particularly paintings include graphic representations of the harshest, most gruesome punishments allotted to sinners. These portrayals serving as a reminder of what the punishment for their misdeeds would be in their after-life.
The eighth century Buddhist poet, Hanshan, warned the living to lead virtuous lives so they could avoid being punished by Yan Wang:
I urge you, put an end to your comings and goings;
Never vex him, old Yan Wang.
Lose your footing, and you’ll fall into the three evil paths
Your bones will be ground into powder, having been pounded one thousand times!
For a long time you’ll be a person in Hell
Forever cut off from the ways of this life.
Yanluo’s fifth court, which particularly deals with matters of money, is assisted by his fearsome guardians Bullhead and Horseface. Despite Yanluo having roots in Buddhist tradition, the clouds on his robes and the longevity peach, indicate this figure is now firmly part of the Daoist belief system. This fluidity in representation is typical of the way the Chinese approach spiritualty and religion easily absorbing ideas from one belief into another.
The Burrell Collection, Glasgow, has a comparable large porcelain seated God of Hell, with a coloured face (acc.nr.38.523). A large Ming Dynasty tilework standing figure, also thought to represent this Judge of Hell, is in The British Museum, London (acc.nr. OA.1922.214.171.124). Another, but seated, figure is in Asian Art Museum, Cologne (inv.nr. F78,1 OS). The Royal Ontario Museum also has a large glazed pottery figure of Yanluo (nr: 923.6.3). Scroll paintings depicting Yanluo's court are in the Victoria &Albert Museum, London (acc.nr 1770-1869) and the Nara Museum, Japan (acc.nr.1013-5).