Efficacious Underworld

The Evolution of Ten Kings Paintings inn Medieval China and Korea

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Cheeyun Lilian Kwon
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawai'i Press
    , February
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The invention of the Ten Kings and their respective courts as a model for the netherworld marks one of the ingenuities of Chinese Buddhism. The Ten Kings preside over ten successive trials, accessing the good and evil of the actions of the deceased during their lifetimes. The final verdict of these infernal trials determines the next stations of reincarnation for the dead. The close resemblance to the multi-layered Chinese bureaucratic system betrays the Chinese origin of this particular vision of the netherworld. At the same time, by facilitating the transmigration of rebirth, the Ten Kings execute the Buddhist karmic law, disclosing their Buddhist identities. Thus, the operation of these underworld dignitaries showcases the seamless integration of religious ideas originated in two distinct cultural spheres. While the importance of the Ten Kings in the history of Chinese religion has been fittingly acknowledged, a study of the reception of the Ten Kings by China’s neighbors is long overdue. In this sense, Cheeyun Kwon’s Efficacious Underworld is a pioneering work that investigates the transmission and transformation of the Ten Kings system beyond China.

Thoroughly informative and richly illustrated, this monograph “traces the origins, evolution, and dissemination of Ten Kings paintings” in medieval China and Korea (vii). Throughout the book, Kwon adopts a method that steers close to the iconographical and stylistic detail of the paintings in a variety of formats and the correlation of those paintings. Through rigorous visual analysis, she seeks to establish the diachronic order of extant Ten Kings paintings as well as key criteria that distinguish Korean works from Chinese ones. Consequently, the book is more concerned about charting a trajectory of the formal development of the paintings than bringing to the fore the social and religious implications of the differences between these paintings. A short summary like this one cannot do justice to the author’s meticulous attention to detail. Instead, I can only describe the general outline of her arguments.

In addition to introduction and conclusion, the book consists of eleven chapters grouped under three main sections. Each section is devoted to a body of Ten Kings pictures which are now found in China, Korea, and Japan, respectively. The entire sequence is also designed to reflect the development of the genre over time. The first section examines Chinese precedents prior to Korean cases. In the earliest surviving examples, mostly from the Dunhuang cave temples, the Ten Kings appear as flanking attendants of Kṣitigarbha, the bodhisattva who delivers Buddhist sermons in the netherworld. Each of the Ten Kings and their respective courts became an independent pictorial subject, furnished with its own set of visual identifiers, when it appeared in the handscroll format as the illustration of the Scripture on the Ten Kings, the doctrinal text of the Ten Kings system. The iconography of the Ten Kings in this narrative mode, in turn, informed that of the Ten Kings in the standalone hanging scroll format developed later in the port city of Ningbo from the Song period (960–1279).

The second main section centers on the print version of The Scriptures on the Ten Kings (1246), kept in the famed Korean woodblocks collection of Buddhist scriptures (Koryŏ Tripitaka) from Haeinsa monastery. In this section, Kwon argues that under the royal patronage of Buddhism, the Ten Kings gained traction among Koryŏ elites in relation to sacrificial offerings to their ancestors as well as the protection of the state from foreign threats. Kwon’s analysis culminates in the last main section, devoted to the set of Ten Kings hanging scrolls housed in the Seikadō Bunko Art Museum in Tokyo. Despite its superb quality of artistry, the Seikadō set has been understudied due to the uncertainties surrounding its provenance and date. Kwon’s iconographical and stylistic analysis in the preceding two sections now allows her to identify the Seikadō set as a work produced in Korea sometime between the late 12th and the early 13th centuries. To lend support to her argument, Kwon delves into every detail of the paintings—not only the portrayals of the kings and the motifs, but also paintings inside the paintings, rendered as the backdrop of the court.

The book could have been stronger if it had engaged more recent scholarship on East Asian religions. For example, in spite of her frequent use of the expression, “the Ten Kings cult,” Kwon does not explain what exactly she means by it. Readers who are familiar with East Asian funerary practices may take it as the practice whereby family members of the deceased have ritual performed to send offerings to the Ten Kings on each trial day, with the expectation that such ritual would reduce the negative karmic effects of the dead person. Implying an exclusive group of passionate devotees, the term “cult,” unless sufficiently qualified, fails to describe adequately a ritual practice that was accepted across religious denominations and social classes and entrenched in the funerary culture of East Asia. Likewise, while her visual analysis allows her to underscore Korean permutations of the Chinese tradition, Kwon seems to take it for granted that the “Ten Kings cult” in Korea was not much different from the Chinese version because both were based on the same Scriptures on the Ten Kings. The shared doctrinal source does not necessarily translate into the same ritual practice. A fuller discussion of how the Korean observance of the Ten Kings ritual departed from its Chinese counterpart would have helped. That said, Efficacious Underworlds offers a model of constructing a historical argument based on close visual analysis. It should appeal not only to historians of East Asian painting, but also to anyone with an interest in the visual and material culture of religion.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Kwi Jeong Lee is Sheng Yen Postdoctoral Fellow in Chinese Buddhism in the Departments of Religion and East Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University.

Date of Review: 
February 26, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Cheeyun Lilian Kwon is Professor in the Arts and Cultural Management Department and the School of Fine Arts, Hongik University, Seoul. She taught Korean and East Asian art at American University and George Mason University and was curator of Korean art at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.


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