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The Taoist Departments of Death

Be on your best behavior – the 76 Departments of the Taoist Pantheon are watching

02·22·2012

You’re dead.

You’re dead, and you’re not quite where you imagined you’d be – heaven, that is. Wherever you are, this is definitely not what they described in Sunday school. You look around, and where the benevolent, harp-strumming angels ought to be is something very different: a 15-foot-tall Asian man.

And he does not look happy.

Palms sweating, you approach his throne.

“Jesus?” you ask, hoping.

“Ai ya!” (哎呀!) the Asian behemoth bellows. “Didn’t you ever go to Dongyue Temple to see my statue?”

“No,” you whimper, wishing you hadn’t chosen to study abroad in Europe.

“Too bad. You have done nothing good and everything evil. Looks like you’ll be spending your next life as…”

He checks his list.

“…a cicada. Goodbye.”

Dongyue Temple (东岳庙, Dōngyuè Miào) – A Brief History 


Heart pounding yet? That’s precisely the desired effect of the Taoist Pantheon.

Presided over by the God of Mount Tai, the Taoist Pantheon, all 76 departments of it, doesn’t fool around. Much like a real government, the Pantheon preserves peace, order and justice, upholding a system in which good behavior is duly rewarded and bad behavior entails unpleasant and unsightly consequences.

These beliefs were dear to Zhang Liusun (张留孙) and Wu Quanjie (吴全节), who, in the early 14th century, began the construction of a Taoist temple in what is now the Chaoyang District of Beijing. At the time, Zhang Liusun was the “Master of Taoism” – a title bestowed upon him by the Yuan emperor – and Wu Quanjie was his greatest disciple. Zhang spearheaded the temple project until his death in 1321. Wu Quanjie saw to it that his master’s work was completed.

The end result: Dongyue Temple. Conveniently located across the street from Wal-Mart (no doubt this was a part of the founder’s original plan), Dongyue Temple is perhaps best thought of as Beijing’s other, other temple. It is an anomaly among Beijing’s more colossal monuments of the past, but its charm is undeniable. Dongyue Temple’s walls enclose a fantasy world with more curious critters than your average Harry Potter novel.

And for 10 yuan, you can spend as much time with them as you want.

While the Yude, Daizongbao and Yuhaung Halls provide the sort of amusement you’re used to at Beijing’s other temples, it’s the 76 Taoist departments that line Dongyue’s perimeter walls that make it truly noteworthy. Populated by beautifully rendered likenesses of Taoist spiritual beings, these rooms will surprise, delight and scare you. Going from department to department and reading the signs can be an almost life-changing experience. It was for me.

And it’s easy to see why.

Five Taoist Departments You Don’t Want to Tangle With

If you thought I meant “uplifting” when I said “life-changing,” you were sorely mistaken. After a day spent wandering through Dongyue Temple, I had no trouble compiling a list of Taoist departments that will unequivocally scare the bejesus out of you.

1.) Department for Implementing 15 Kinds of Violent Death

If you chortled at that oddly specific number, you’d best stifle your laughter. Why? Get on the bad side of the Department for Implementing 15 Kinds of Violent Death (presumably abbreviated D.I.15.K.V.D.) and you could find your head separated from your shoulders. That or death caused by fierce animals or snakes, clubbing, revengeful murder, poisoning or falling into an abyss, among other things. So if you’re thinking about performing an evil deed, just know: that anthropomorphic, horned guy has exactly 15 tricks up his sleeve.

2.) Department for Suppressing Schemes

Feeling crafty, eh? That fellow in the foreground with the uncanny, perpetually raised eyebrow has one thing to say to you:

“Try me.”

The Department for Suppressing Schemes can sniff out an underhanded plot seven layers of Hell away, especially if your aim is to “harm loyal subjects.” Even if your dirty deed goes unpunished in the mortal world, the Department for Suppressing Schemes will have their wonky eyebrows trained on you for all of eternity.

3.) Punishment Department

What is the Punishment Department’s specialty? Glad you asked.

It’s punishment.

Like clutching your entrails? Never want to lick an ice cream cone again? The Punishment Department can help. Just steal candy from a baby, refrain from helping the elderly cross the street and cut in line at the subway a couple times. Before long, you’ll learn what it means to “pay back evil with evil.” At least the punishments are supposedly “unbiased, just and accurate.” Good to hear that knife-wielding, Darth Maul look-alike has a clear head.

4.) Department of Instant Rewards and Retribution

Yes, the Department for Instant Rewards and Retribution isn’t all bad. Those who live thoughtful and considerate lives probably leave the mortal world with a fairly good impression of this department.

How wrong they are.

Slip up on your path to righteousness just one time, and you will be instantly  violated by a ruthless agent of the Department for Instant Rewards and Retribution. There’s no time to reconsider your foul deeds or endeavor to right past wrongs. There’s only time recoil in horror as the minion pounces on you, guffawing maniacally, while stunned onlookers stand with mouths agape. What was that about rewards?

5.) Department for Reducing Longevity

You hear that clock ticking? It’s not counting down the remaining time in your workday.

It’s counting down to your death.

Plugging your ears won’t help. At the Department for Reducing Longevity, your days are numbered, and they’re counting. People say a cigarette takes seven minutes off of your life.

Big deal.

The Department for Reducing Longevity can beat that by 299 days, 23 hours and 53 minutes, all in the blink of an eye. Too many “grave faults” and you’ll wish you had stuck with cigarettes. Even more disturbingly, it’s the smirking goofball with the white fan who doles out the punishments.

What Taoist Departments are on your “Not to Tangle With” list? Did I leave anything out? Which department do you most want to avoid? Have you been to Dongyue Temple to see the Taoist statues?

Illustration courtesy of Sarah Rapp

Visit Dongyue Temple at 141 Chaowai Dajie, Chaoyang District, Beijing (东岳庙 朝阳门外大街141). It’s located about 500 meters east of the Chaoyangmen subway station.

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