This week on #VNmyth, let’s talk about Diêm vương (Sino-Vietnamese for Yan Wang – “king of hell.” A.K.A. Yanluo).
So… Vietnamese King of Hell. Can you guess where he appears the most?
No. Not fairytales. Not scary stories. Not even folk poems and songs. Believe it or not, the supposedly Vietnamese King of the death most frequently takes part in comedies. And through these comedies, we can somewhat piece together roughly who he is as a person.
I. He who is afraid of his wife:
One day, the King of Hell gathered every male ghost in Hell and asked:
“Who here isn’t afraid of his wife? Stand to my left.”
All the ghosts moved to the right, except one who was late! Immediately, gazes filled with admiration were shot toward him. Diêm Vương, too, was surprised.
“You truly are a brave man. Tell me, how did you conquer the fear?”
The man finally spoke, timidly:
“O’ great King, I’m afraid too, but my wife wouldn’t let me go into crowds.”
The King smiled warmly as if he had seen a destined friend and said:
“Then you can come and stand by my side.”
II. The ‘wise’ judge:
A prostitute, a thief, and a doctor died and went to Hell. Diêm Vương asked the three souls what they had done in life. The thief said:
“I was a poor soul, wanting nothing more than to help people. So every night I would roam the streets, if I saw anyone forget something, I would hide it for them so thieves can’t get their hands on it.”
Then the prostitute said:
“I don’t have a husband and hyper-sympathetic, especially widowed men. Whoever comes to my place, I would treat them as if they were my own husband.”
The doctor was the last one to speak:
“I’m not as ‘good’ as the other two but have saved many lives when I was alive.”
The Hell King wanted to make the thief and the prostitute rich and powerful in their next life. The doctor, however, was sentenced to be boiled in an oil cauldron since he prevented the demon underlings from taking those dying souls.
The doctor then begged:
“Please give me one more night. I have to tell my son to become a thief, my daughter to be a prostitute. Whatever they do, don’t take up the family business if they don’t want to end up in the oil.”
III. Good doctor:
The King’s son was sick, so he ordered his underlings to go to the mortal realm to find doctors. When they asked how to decide who’s good enough for the prince, he said:
“Just look for the one with the least amount of ghosts following him, as those are the ones to die because of their incompetence.”
The underlings went up, searched around. But even the most famous doctors had a long line of ghosts following them. As they were about to give up, they finally found a doctor that had only one spirit tailing him. Immediately, they took the doctor to the underworld.
He did what was asked of him, yet the prince’s health only worsen. The King of Hell was enraged. Only then did he and his underlings learned that the doctor was a newbie and had only had one patient thus far.
IV. Pigs go to court:
Tired of being eaten, the pigs went to the King of Hell to sue the butcher. Diêm vương said:
“So… how do they kill you?”
One pig said:
“I was killed to be eaten.”
“Be more specific.”
And so, the pig went into detail about how it was prepared. (Nothing too graphic, more or less just like reading a recipe or food porn, but I’ll omit this just in case people find this disturbing)
It was stopped mid-way by the Hell King.
Still mouth-watering, he said:
“Stop! You’re making me too hungry now.”
V. Cultural contexts and my comments:
_ Yup, we poke fun at the King of Hell. While the death of people is still respected, the concept of death itself is viewed really lightly.
_ Asian Hell, much like Greek Underworld, is where all souls go after they die. After a person dies in Asian culture, or more specifically, Chinese and Vietnamese culture, they begin an afterlife in Hell, with the concept of Yin Longevity coming into play. It is said that only after a person has reached his Yin Longevity that s/he would reincarnate. Though, some stories say the spirit can opt for early reincarnation. Only the horrible people get punished, while only great men like national heroes who are worshipped by the people can attain Godhood/Sainthood and enter the Realm of Heaven.
In this line of thought, The King of Hell has always been a Deity on the side of good, not at all like the “Greater Demon Yanluo” in Cassandra Clare’s novels. While I still acknowledge most of the nods in her works to Asian culture as decent and respectful enough, this one particular detail had always bugged me.
_ The story of the thief, the prostitute, and the doctor is just how people make metaphors of how much damage a clueless leader can create by unknowingly putting the wrong people into positions of power. Also, it’s the power of narrative. It should be noted that there are also stories where Diêm Vương was praised for being a fair judge who punished the guilty and rewarded the innocent. However, the story is a lengthy and depressing one that I cannot manage to get into right now. So maybe another time.
Fun fact: The people who introduced me to this story were my grandparents, and they were among the last doctors to practice traditional medicine in Hanoi. And before you ask, yes, they are recognized by the authority and can work legally as doctors, so no superstition bs here :))
_ This is a theory I made to connect and systemize our folk tales with the legends of Đạo Mẫu (the religion of mothers) and is non-canon outside my own work, but I want to share it just to make this post a bit longer: the Hell King, being a clumsy, clueless guy that rarely does anything significant, doesn’t actually have any real power in Hell. The actual person in charge is his wife – the mother of Hell. Remember him being afraid of his wife in the first story?? And yes, I write my own books too, but this is not a series to self-promo.
Well, that’s it for this week. Sorry if it felt a bit rush as I have some IRL problems that need attention.