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.”