Li BoYan: A Tale of Justice and Redemption in the Underworld

Explore the remarkable story of Li Boyan, who faced the harsh punishments of the underworld with resilience and uncovered the surprising light within its depths.

李伯言 (Li Boyan) was a native of Yishui, known for his straightforwardness and sense of justice. One day, he suddenly fell seriously ill. His family brought him medicine, but he declined, saying, “My illness cannot be cured by medicine. The underworld is lacking a Yama (a judge of the dead), and they want me to act as a temporary replacement. After I die, don’t bury me; wait for my return.” On that day, he indeed passed away.

Servants guided Li Boyan into a grand palace, where he was dressed in official attire and crowned with a king’s hat. Guards stood respectfully by his side. There were numerous scrolls and documents scattered on the table, in a disorderly fashion. Li Boyan picked up one scroll, which recorded a case from Jiangnan Province. After investigation, it was found that a man had committed heinous acts against 82 innocent women. The evidence was conclusive, and according to the underworld’s laws, he was to be subjected to severe punishment by burning.

In the hall, there stood a tall bronze pillar, about eight to nine feet high, with a hollow interior filled with red-hot coals, glowing inside and out. A group of little demons used iron bristles to whip and drive the man up the bronze pillar. Despite the pain, the man climbed, but as soon as he reached the top, there was a loud “bang” like a firecracker, and he fell to the ground. After lying there for a while, he slowly regained consciousness. The demons whipped him again, and he climbed to the top, only to fall with the same explosive sound. This happened three times, and each time, the man turned into smoke and dissipated, unable to assume human form again.

Another case involved Wang, a fellow villager of Li Boyan, accused of forcibly taking a maid. Wang had been a relative by marriage to Li Boyan. Earlier, someone had sold the maid to Wang, who knew it was an unethical purchase but was tempted by the low price. Subsequently, Wang fell seriously ill and died. Two days later, his friend Zhou encountered Wang on the road, realizing that he had encountered a ghost. Zhou hurried home in fear, and Wang followed him there. Zhou prayed and asked Wang what he wanted. Wang replied, “Please go to the underworld as a witness for me.” Astonished, Zhou asked, “For what reason?” Wang explained, “I purchased that maid at a price, and now I am falsely accused of forcible possession. You witnessed this with your own eyes, and I only seek your testimony, nothing more.” Zhou firmly refused Wang’s request.

As Wang was about to leave, he said, “You may not have a choice in this matter.” Soon after, Zhou indeed passed away and, along with Wang, appeared before the Yama. When Li Boyan saw Wang, he had a hidden intention to support him. Suddenly, he noticed a fire on the Yama’s platform, burning the beams. Li Boyan was greatly frightened and stood aside. A minor official quickly said, “The underworld is different from the living world; it allows no selfish or distracting thoughts. Quickly eliminate your distractions, and the fire will naturally extinguish.” Li Boyan cleared his mind, calming his emotions, and the fire immediately went out.

After a while, the trial began. Wang and the maid’s father repeatedly pleaded their cases and accused each other. Li Boyan asked Zhou, who testified truthfully. Consequently, Wang was sentenced to a beating for knowingly committing a crime. After the punishment, Li Boyan sent Zhou and others back to the living world. Three days after their deaths, Zhou and Wang were both revived.

After Li Boyan had finished his official duties, he rode a horse-drawn carriage back. On the way, he encountered hundreds of headless and limbless ghosts lying on the ground, wailing in despair. Li Boyan stopped the carriage to inquire about the situation. It turned out that these were souls who had died in a distant place and wished to return to their hometown. They feared being obstructed at the checkpoints and begged Li Boyan to issue them travel permits. Li Boyan said, “I served in the underworld for three days, but I have already resigned. What power do I have now?” The multitude of spirits said, “There is a man named Hu Sheng in the southern village who is about to establish a Daoist temple and recite scriptures to help the deceased souls. Please convey our message to him; he will assist us.” Li Boyan agreed.

Upon returning home, his attendants and horses had all departed, and he regained consciousness. Hu Sheng, whose courtesy name was Shui Xin and who had a friendly relationship with Li Boyan, came to visit upon hearing that Li Boyan had come back from the dead. Li Boyan hastily inquired, “When will the Daoist temple be established?” Hu Sheng was astonished and said, “After the chaos of war, my wife and children miraculously survived. I mentioned this aspiration to them some time ago, but I never spoke of it to anyone else. How did you come to know?” Li Boyan explained the truth to him. Hu Sheng sighed, “A simple word spoken in the inner chambers can reach the underworld; it’s truly astounding!” He then agreed to carry out Li Boyan’s request and departed.

The next day, Li Boyan went to Wang’s house, where Wang was still lying in bed, fatigued. Upon seeing Li Boyan, he immediately got up, showing great respect and gratitude for Li Boyan’s protection. Li Boyan said, “The laws of the underworld do not allow any leniency. Is your health improving?” Wang replied, “There’s no longer any major issue, but the wounds from the beating have festered and become abscessed.” It took more than twenty days for Wang’s wounds to finally heal, and the rotten flesh on his buttocks had fallen off, leaving scars reminiscent of the marks left by a beating.

The chronicler of strange tales said: “The punishment laws in the underworld are even more cruel than those in the living world, and the penalties are harsher as well. However, pleading for mercy or protection is in vain, and those who undergo these severe punishments do not utter complaints. Who says that the underworld is shrouded in eternal darkness? They only regret not having a fire to burn down the courts of the living world.”

《李伯言》

李生伯言,沂水人,抗直有肝胆。忽暴病,家人进药,却之曰:“吾病非药饵可疗,阴司阎罗缺,欲吾暂摄其篆耳。死勿埋我,宜待之。”是日果死。驺从导去,入一宫殿,进冕服,隶胥祗候甚肃。案上簿书丛沓。一宗,江南某,稽生平所私良家女八十二人。鞫之,佐证不诬。按冥律,宜炮烙。堂下有铜柱,高八九尺,围可一抱,空其中而炽炭焉,表里通赤。群鬼以铁蒺藜挞驱使登,手移足盘而上。甫至顶,则烟气飞腾,崩然一响如爆竹,人乃堕。团伏移时,始复苏,又挞之,爆堕如前。三堕,则匝地如烟而散,不复能成形矣。又一起,为同邑王某,被婢父讼盗占生女。王即生姻家。先是,一人卖婢,王知其所来非道,而利其直廉,遂购之。至是王暴卒。越日,其友周生遇于途,知为鬼,奔避斋中,王亦从入。周惧而祝,问所欲为。王曰:“烦作见证于冥司耳。”惊问:“何事?”曰:“余婢实价购之,今被误控。此事君亲见之,惟借季路一言,无他说也。”周固拒之。王出曰:“恐不由君耳。”未几,周果死,同赴阎罗质审。李见王,隐存左袒意。忽见殿上火生,焰烧梁栋。李大骇,侧足立。吏急进曰:“阴曹不与人世等,一念之私不可容。急消他念,则火自熄。”李敛神寂虑,火顿灭。已而鞫状,王与婢父反复相苦。问周,周以实对,王以故犯论笞。笞讫,遣人俱送回生,周与王皆三日而苏。

李视事毕,舆马而返。中途见阙头断足者数百辈,伏地哀鸣。停车研诘,则异乡之鬼,思践故土,恐关隘阻隔,乞求路引。李曰:“余摄任三日,已解任矣,何能为力?”众曰:“南村胡生,将建道场,代嘱可致。”李诺之。至家,驺从都去,李乃苏。胡生字水心,与李善,闻李再生,便诣探省。李遽问:“清醮何时?”胡讶曰:“兵燹之后,妻孥瓦全,向与室人作此愿心,未向一人道也。何知之?”李具以告。胡叹曰:“闺房一语,遂播幽冥,可惧哉!”乃敬诺而去。次日,如王所,王犹惫卧。见李,肃然起敬,申谢佑庇。李曰:“法律不能宽假。今幸无恙乎?”王云:“已无他症,但笞疮脓溃耳。”又二十馀日始痊,臀肉腐落,瘢痕如杖者。

异史氏曰:阴司之刑,惨于阳世,责亦苛于阳世。然关说不行,则受残酷者不怨也。谁谓夜台无天日哉?第恨无火烧临民之堂廨耳!

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