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The Fengdu Ghost City in Chongqing Municipality in China

Brad Smithfield

There are many historical locations and sacred grounds that are dedicated to the afterlife scattered throughout the world. There are festivals celebrating it as well: the Christian All Souls’ Day, Dia de los Muertos in Mexico, Gai Jatra in Nepal, and various other cultures have diverse concepts of death and the afterlife but the main essence is almost always the same. On Ming Mountain in the Fengdu County of China lies the mystical “Ghost City,” which is dedicated to the souls which have departed this world.

The gate to Youdu, the capital of Diyu. Photo Credit

The gate to Youdu, the capital of hell. Photo Credit

The Fengdu Ghost City is a complex of shrines, monasteries, and temples, and has a history of more than two thousand years. It is situated on the northern bank of the Yangtze River. Legend has it that the Ghost City got its name from two imperial officials, Yin Changsheng and Wang Fangping, who practiced Taoism on Ming Mountain and achieved immortality in the process.

Yangtze River from Fengdu Ghost City. Photo Credit

Yangtze River from Fengdu Ghost City. Photo Credit

The combination of their names, “Yinwan,” means “King of Hell.” During the Tang Dynasty, a remarkable temple was erected that depicted hell and the afterlife. It was modeled after Diyu, the Buddhist concept of the underworld, and consists of structures, dioramas, shrines, and statues.

Statue of a Yaksha. Photo Credit

Statue of a Yaksha. Photo Credit

The area became separated from the city of Fengdu because of the rising water levels and the Three Gorges Dam. It was rebuilt higher up the mountainside on the southern side of the river.

The Jade Emperor at the Fengdu Ghost City. Photo Credit

The Jade Emperor statue. Photo Credit

According to Chinese beliefs, to go to the afterlife, the dead must pass three tests. First, they must pass the Bridge of Helplessness, a Ming Dynasty stone bridge that connects with the netherworld and tests the goodness of people, while demons forbid or allow passage at the bridge. Wicked people were pushed over the bridge to fall into the water below, while the good were allowed to pass. The process is now an amusing tourist attraction as performers dress up as demons to momentarily stop tourists but finally allowing them access.

The Bridge of Helplessness. Photo Credit

The Bridge of Helplessness. Photo Credit

The second test is to proceed to the Ghost-Torturing Pass, an area in which there are large sculptures of demons. The dead arrive and are presented before Yama, the King of Hell, who will pass judgment upon the dead.

Mural in Fengdu Ghost City shows evil people falling to the underworld and being eaten by monsters. Photo Credit

Mural in Fengdu Ghost City shows evil people falling to the underworld and being eaten by monsters. Photo Credit

Finally, the third test is to stand on a stone on one foot for three minutes. The trial is done at the entrance to Tianzi Palace, which covers an area of 2,908 yards. It has a history of 300 years and is the oldest temple on Ming Mountain. According to the legend, a bad person will fall off the stone and be condemned to hell.

Figures representing different ways the evil will be tortured in the afterlife.

Figures representing different ways the evil will be tortured in the afterlife. Photo Credit

There is also the Home Viewing Pavilion, where the dead are granted one last chance to look towards their home and loved ones. It was built in 1985.

The Home Viewing Pavillion. Photo Credit

The Home Viewing Pavillion. Photo Credit

The ancient craftsmanship, architecture, and the eerie statues are a constant reminder that the “Good will be rewarded with good, and evil with evil.” The statue of the drunkard ghost, the ghost king, the lustful ghost, and many others are a sight to behold.

Statue of the "wreath eating ghost" (食蔓鬼). In legend, this ghost was a girl who adorned herself with flower wreaths she stole from statues of the Buddha. After she died, as punishment, she was not allowed to feast on food offerings from living people and could only feed on flower wreaths.

Statue of the “wreath eating ghost” (食蔓鬼). In the legend, there was a girl who stole flowers from statues of the Buddha and when she died, she was not allowed to accept food offerings from living people and could only feed on flower wreaths. Photo Credit

In recent years, Fengdu Ghost City has become a well-attended tourist attraction. Cruise boats that carry many tourists come and stop at the docks, where the tourists are guided halfway up the mountain and from there, they continue to the Ghost City via open-air escalator.

Statue of a lustful ghost. Photo Credit

Statue of the lustful ghost. Photo Credit

The myriad of tales and ghost stories that are told in Fengdu are no surprise, as the vast complex of shrines had once been a Taoist cemetery. The bustling city is very active and lively at day and some people believe that it’s crowded with ghosts at night.

Statue of a drunkard ghost. Photo Credit

Statue of the drunkard ghost. Photo Credit

The otherworldly city is also mentioned and vividly referenced in many famous literary works such as Journey to the West and Apotheosis of Heroes and still continues to intrigue and haunt many tourists to this day.