The upper level was ruled by Yanluo Wang, the King of Hell, Diyu is a maze of underground levels and chambers where souls are taken to atone for their earthly sins. The second level was ruled by king Chu Jiang and reserved for thieves and murderers.
Incorporating ideas from Taoism and Buddhism as well as traditional Chinese folk religion, Diyu is a kind of purgatory place which serves not only to punish but also to renew spirits ready for their next incarnation. There are many deities associated with the place, whose names and purposes are the subject of much conflicting information.
The exact number of levels in Chinese Hell - and their associated deities - differs according to the Buddhist or Taoist perception. Some speak of three to four 'Courts', other as many as ten. The ten judges are also known as the 10 Kings of Yama. Each Court deals with a different aspect of atonement. For example, murder is punished in one Court, adultery in another. According to some Chinese legends, there are eighteen levels in Hell. Punishment also varies according to belief, but most legends speak of highly imaginative chambers where wrong-doers are sawn in half, beheaded, thrown into pits of filth or forced to climb trees adorned with sharp blades.
However, most legends agree that once a soul (usually referred to as a 'ghost') has atoned for their deeds and repented, he or she is given the Drink of Forgetfulness by Meng Po and sent back into the world to be reborn, possibly as an animal or a poor or sick person, for further punishment. One description of Diyu can be found in the Jade Record.
Some early cultures in China thought people went to Mount Tai, Jiuyuan (九原) or Jiuquan (九泉), or Fengdu after death.
There are many hells with different punishments in Buddhist and Taoist books. Some controversial folk religion planchette writings such as Journeys to the Under-World said there are hells with new punishments as the world is changing. The Hell is made up of ten courts, each ruled by one of the 10 Yama Kings and 18 levels in which wrongdoers are punished. The relative time of the hells may be different.
In some literatures, there are references to 18 types or subtypes of hells, or 18 hells for each type of punishment, rather than just 18 levels of hell. In some literatures, there are different types of punishment on each level.
The concept of '18 levels of hell' started in the Tang Dynasty. The Buddhist text Wen Di Yu Jing (問地獄經) mentioned 134 worlds of hell, but was simplified to 18 levels of hell for convenience.
- Chamber of Wind and Thunder – People who kill and commit heinous crimes out of greed are sent here for punishment.
- Chamber of Grinding – Wealthy men who do no good and waste food are ground into powder in this chamber.
- Chamber of Flames – People who steal, plunder, rob and cheat are sent here to be burnt.
- Chamber of Ice – Children who ill-treat their parents and elders are sent here to be frozen in ice.
- Chamber of Oil Cauldrons – Sex offenders such as rapists, lechers, adulterers are fried in oil in this chamber.
- Chamber of Dismemberment by Sawing – Kidnappers and pimps suffer the fate of being sawn in this chamber.
- Chamber of Dismemberment by Chariot – Corrupt officials and landlords who oppress and exploit the people are dismembered by a chariot in this chamber.
- Chamber of Mountain of Knives – Fraudulent merchants and profiteers are made to shed blood by climbing the mountain of knives.
- Chamber of Tongue Ripping – Gossips and perjurers suffer the fate of having their tongues ripped out in this chamber.
- Chamber of Pounding – Cold-blooded murderers are pounded in this chamber.
- Chamber of Torso-severing – Scheming and ungrateful men have their torsos severed in this chamber.
- Chamber of Scales – Oppressors, merchants who give short weight and daughters-in-law who ill-treat their in-laws have hooks pierced into their body and hung upside down.
- Chamber of Eye-gouging – Peeping Toms have their eyeballs gouged out in this chamber.
- Chamber of Heart-digging – People with evil hearts have them dug out in this chamber.
- Chamber of Disembowelment – Barrators, hypocrites and tomb-robbers have their bowels dug out in this chamber.
- Chamber of Blood – Blasphemous offenders who show no respect to the gods suffer the fate of being skinned in this chamber.
- Chamber of Maggots – Shysters who use loopholes to engage in malpractice are eaten alive by maggots in this chamber.
- Chamber of Avici – Crooks who have committed heinous crimes, brought misery to the people and committed treason are placed on a platform above an inferno. The unlucky ones fall off the platform into the inferno and burn while the lucky ones remain on the platform. These spirits are never to be reincarnated.
There are folk variants of the 18 hells in full chart of the sea and land and Feng Du. Some religious or literature books said wrongdoers not being punished when alive being punished in the hells.
Among the more common names for the Underworld are (from most common to least common):
- 地獄 - dìyù the underworld prison
- 地府 - dìfŭ the underworld mansion
- 黃泉 - huángquán the yellow spring (meaning the origin/source of life and death, possibly a reference to the Yellow River)
- 陰間 - yīnjiān the shady space (cf. Yin and yang)
- 陰府 - yīnfŭ the shady mansion
- 陰司 - yīnsī the shady office
- 森羅殿 - shēnluó diàn the court of Sinluo
- 閻羅殿 - yánluó diàn the court of Yanluo
- 九泉 - jiŭquán the nine springs (origin/source)
- 重泉 - chóngquán the repeating spring (origin/source)
- 泉路 - quánlù the spring road
- 幽冥 - yōumíng the serene darkness
- 幽壤 - yōurăng the serene land
- 火炕 - huŏkàng the fire pit
- 九幽 - jiŭyōu the nine serenities
- 九原 - jiŭyuán the nine origins
- 冥府 – míngfŭ the dark mansion
- 阿鼻 - ābí (pinyin), a Buddhist term, from Sanskrit Avīci, the hell of uninterrupted torture, last and deepest of eight hot hells
- 足跟 - zúgēn the heel of the foot, also means hells
- 酆都城 - Fēngdū Chéng, name of a city imagined to contain an entrance to Diyu
- 奈何橋 - the bridge of helplessness
- 望鄉臺 - the home viewing pavilion
- 油鍋 - the deep frying wok, one of the tortures in hell.
- 三塗 - the three tortures of Buddhist hell, burn by fire (火塗), chop by knife (刀塗), torn apart by beasts (血塗, spill of blood).