A Chinese Interpretation of Hell

My informant was raised by a native Chinese mother who often would tell him bits and pieces of Chinese folklore during his childhood. Of these stories, the one that is most memorable to my informant was a description of what he calls “Chinese hell.” Although he admits that he does not know the true origin of this story and that it could likely be from anywhere, he is confident that it is an interpretation of hell that is “likely widely known throughout China and definitely known by my extended family.” In this hell, there are a series of various challenges that you have to perform after life. Unfortunately, all of these challenges are impossible and often loop infinitely. He did not remember every challenge, but the one that he felt was the most significant involves swimming through a river of fire in order to pick a fruit off of a tree on the other side of the river. However, the challenge does not end there. According to my informant, “every time you cross the river the tree teleports to the opposite side of the river, making it so you can never actually obtain the fruit.” When asked about the origin of this story he told me that, “[he] heard it from his mom initially and she from hers. Knowing her family it may be a taoist inspired interpretation of Christian hell, but I do not really know.”

I found this story interesting because according to him, this interpretation of hell is more than just suffering. While it contains a river of fire, which is typical hell imagery, the story seems to focus more on the unsolvable puzzle that the damned has to try to solve for all eternity. The punishment here lies in the impossibility of claiming the fruit. Here, being damned to hell means that you w ill have to try and complete a painful task that will never be over; this is the real punishment in this “Chinese interpretation of hell.”