Late imperial Chinese narratives, found under various formats (vernacular novels, «precious scrolls» baojuan 寶卷 ballads, local operas), all feature prominently tales of people going through the Chinese Hell. Our talk, however, will take as a starting point not texts, but pictures. Namely, those found in a particular genre of late imperial ritual paintings: scrolls of the Ten Kings of Hell used by Daoist ritual masters (fashi 法師) of late imperial and republican southern China in ceremonies for the salvation of the dead.
In those paintings, just opposite the table of the Hell’s Kings, characters are shown «playing» a story of grief or injustice in front of the netherworld magistrate. Which stories of the Chinese tradition are thus put to use and why? We’ll propose a small typology of the stories, then will depict and contextualize the more often met ones: the accusation of Tang Taizong 唐太宗 by the slain dragon king of the Jing River, the transformation into a snake of emperor Liang Wu di’s 梁武帝 wife, or the killing of Yang Qilang 楊七郎 by the treacherous minister Pan Renmei 潘仁美. We’ll try to understand which tales from historical or fictional narratives are thus selected to compose a sort of China’s «dark history» and why.