Torn and gathering dust in attics and back halls, Chinese hell scrolls represent a religious discourse from a past generation, and few of them have survived the cultural revolutions, modernizations and general lack of interest in this earlier popular art form, an “art” form more in the sense of “artisan” rather than “artist.” The Taizong’s Hell project has endeavored to collect some of these remaining pieces for teaching purposes. Few art forms simultaneously span the notions of cosmic structure, moral conduct and entertainment for the non-elite populace. This graphic medium not only reveals the everyday anxieties that were on people’s mental radars; it also provides a glimpse of their aspirations, of their yardstick for measuring proper behaviors and ultimate goals.
Just as the scrolls are here an object of our attention, the collection of scrolls in itself becomes an object with a history, a present use and a future trajectory, and so here I step away from the individual scrolls and scroll sets to set forth a record of the collection. (If the hell scrolls teach nothing else, they vaunt the idea of record keeping with watchful heavenly spirits tallying merits and demerits, the stellar lords of life and death maintaining their ledgers and the court magistrates writing out edicts with their red and black inks.) Here we set out the initial history of the collection (written by Joe Kagle), its current usage and its possible future trajectories.