History of the scroll collection

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.

Joe Kagle: The beginning of the hell scroll collection

My interest in the hell scrolls began in the summer of 1965 when I attended a New York State grant session at NYU under the direction and instruction of professor Li, from the U. of Iowa (at that time) with lectures from the renowned Prof. Soper from NYU. It lasted all summer and the chosen professors from New York colleges attended classes and visited collections in New York at the Met plus private collections, Harvard in Boston and U. of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Mostly the study was comprehensive about all Chinese painting and crafts, history and culture. There were some of us, mostly myself and the New York artist Alan Kaprow who were especially interested in the color and subject matter of the hell scrolls. From this introduction, I was chosen the following summer of 1966 to study at the Palace Museum in Taipei, under the instruction of Tom Lawton, who eventually was the curator at the Freer Museum in Washington, D.C. The hell scrolls were a small part of the visual art group (5 of us of the 25 who studied there that summer under a Fulbright-Hays Scholarship). My study of those scrolls were done in galleries in Taipei, the Palace Museum, Tai Chung, Tainan, I-Lan, and other small towns along the coast of Taiwan. We had one lecture by the author of Sin and Guilt in Traditional China (from a now extinct book that he published, cannot remember his name) which interested me more in the scrolls themselves, not just the history behind them. I tried to purchase some scrolls after seeing some examples at the Palace Museum and in temples along our travels, but was told: “These kind of scrolls are no longer made and the older ones are not available.”

Joe Kagle
Joe Kagle

In 1969, I was appointed director of the Fine Arts Department (visual arts, music and theater) at the University of Guam. From that time until I left in 1976, I went to Taiwan and Hong Kong at least three times a year, staying in the summer for three to four weeks (taking 20 students there in 1973 and 1975 for study). I remembered what I had been told about the lack of possibility to collect these hell scrolls but by searching all the galleries along the main street in Taipei and the other cities we visited, also going to “hagglers’ alley (booths set up each Saturday of private goods from the country), I found a few (2-3 single scrolls and the puppets that told their stories but no collect sets). I found some in Hong Kong also but again only a few from a broken set (said to be done in the 19th century but I was sure from style, condition and paper that they were mid 20th). Then I saw a recent set in a temple in I-Lan, on the eastern coast of Taiwan, across the Cross Island Highway (when it was a road that only went one way in the morning and one in the afternoon- which was sometimes not honored). I got the name of the painter and his sons, met them and ordered a newly painted set of the collect scrolls to be painted. It took half a year but they were beautifully painted (I still own that set). As I remember, that set cost $500 to collect in 1972. The painter was said to be the last of the Hell Scroll artists (he was in his 80’s then and soon died after completing my order). I showed the finished set at the National Museum in the park behind Liberty House where my family stayed while in Taipei. All at once other private collections of Hell Scrolls were surprisingly found and offered to me. I choose to buy the best from private collectors, galleries, etc. from Taipei (the biggest source) to Tainan. I bought eight complete sets (10 scrolls in a set) which I suspect were brought from the mainland by the fleeing Chinese from Communists, placed in attics and sometimes forgotten by the children of the parents or grandparents who brought them over. I cannot tell the actual dating of the works but most can be placed in the 19th century with some surety (although I was told that some were older than that but I could not authenticate that dating except by style). Also I bought single or double scrolls which depicted the gods of hell (I use the word “hell” although that is not the way that they were presented to me- they were “Scrolls from the Underworld”). It is during that time that I began my research comparing these depictions to Dante’s concepts of hell. I estimate that I spent between $1000-10,000 dollars a year collecting Chinese art in Taiwan and Hong Kong (living on Guam and teaching oriental art and having no museums there to use for my students, I was able to take this off my income tax as a teaching expense). Also at that time, I was working on the side for Chinese and Japanese businesses with my own art so I was making exceptional money which had to be spent or I would pay it in taxes.

I showed the scrolls to Tom Lawton at the Freer Museum in Washington and he felt that they were done by peasant artists or artisans, not royal painters, but that is exactly what I thought and wanted at that time. I was interested in the use of color as compared to some of my fellow artists painting in New York as Abstract Expressionists. I have used the scrolls in this kind of comparison since the 1970’s with my students (while also running classes at the museums where I was curator and director). They have been shown twice at museums as my collection (approx. 50-80 at one time but less now).

My children do not have the passion for the scrolls that I have therefore I started selling my total collection (including the scrolls in the 1980’s). Because of the nature of the subject matter of the hell scrolls, they did not sell and that suited my teaching and love of them. I sold all the Hell Puppets in the late 1990’s and the first set of the total series to Prof. Ken Brashier of Reed College in recent years.

The process of collecting scrolls was interesting. It takes patience and the time to build trust. It took me years to acquire the first set, painted by the last of the hell scroll painters in I-Lan, and then I began to hear about more sets. But even then I was shown inferior sets in the main showroom of a commercial gallery. It was only later, after the owner knew that I knew what “the best of the best” looked like, that other rooms were opened to me in the backs of the gallery, and finally drawers of work that few saw. The cheapest set was gotten for under $50 and a white shirt that I was wearing at the time; the most expensive in 1970’s was over $3000. I traveled to Taiwan each year from 1970-1976 and Hong Kong from 1972-76, searching the galleries and talking to academicians about private collections. I had one dealer in Taipei who knew my passion and searched for them for me (cannot remember his name but I do remember the small one room of his establishment).

The project now called "Taizong's Hell"

And now I (K.E. Brashier) must return to my own voice, but not without expressing my own sincere gratitude and admiration for what Joe Kagle has done in creating this collection. I can only hope I am worthy to continue overseeing the collection, adding to it and transforming it into a teaching tool via college courses, websites and museum exhibitions.

While pursuing my PhD at Cambridge – or, perhaps more accurately, while not pursuing it as I was in the library taking a break from a particularly hard text in classical Chinese – I was browsing the shelves and stumbled across a scarce 1984 exhibition catalog from Taiwan called Ten kings of Hades: The Vidor collection. Very similar to the scrolls that now comprise Taizong’s Hell, the artwork evoked that morbid curiosity we all possess when it comes to horror films or car accidents. I had never heard of such art before, and while I had no expectation of ever encountering it again, I photocopied a few pages and filed them away in one of those folders that ought to be labeled “Unlikely to ever get around to investigating.”

K.E. Brashier
K.E. Brashier

A couple years later, I surprisingly became an assistant professor of religion at Reed College, “surprisingly” because I’ve never taken a religion course of any kind in my life. While madly preparing several syllabi in unfamiliar subjects and scurrying after interesting pedagogical teaching materials, my “Unlikely to ever get around to investigating” folder resurfaced, and I made poor quality slide images from those black-and-white photocopies. Despite the pitiful state of the images, my students seemed to share my initial fascination and engaged in meaty discussions about systemized ethics, karmic reciprocity and the spectacle element of such hellish pageantry, and so I knew I was onto something. I searched the internet and duly came across Joe’s website in which he was selling parts of his collection.

At first I only wanted a couple scrolls to focus classroom discussion, but these scrolls are of course best studied in complete sets, and at the next stage of their study, sets should be compared against other sets. Because they were to be used for educational purposes, Joe very kindly (and very significantly) discounted the scrolls for me, and over the course of many years, I managed to buy out his whole collection on my teacher’s salary, including the I-Lan scrolls described above. (Joe’s above statement was written several years ago before I bought out the entire collection.) Oddly enough, to this day Joe and I have never met in person.

In addition to their content that merges cosmic structure with ethics and entertainment, hell scrolls fascinate me because their texts identify certain sins that are in turn tied to certain punishments. Our job of interpretation is made much easier through their explicit format. Furthermore as a social historian (but admittedly of a much earlier period), I am interested in the idea systems of the non-elite populace, and the hell scrolls provide an access point to begin exploring those mores and standards. To me, these hell scrolls are like studying Midwestern small-town nativity scenes rather than the Madonna-and-child paintings of Dutch or Venetian masters. Small-town nativity scenes and artisan-workshop hell scrolls are one step closer to defogging the public memory of the past.

Reed Magazine Winter 2009
Reed Magazine
Winter 2009
Since acquiring the original collection, I’ve more than doubled their number, made them the focus of an academic course entitled “Death and remembrance in Chinese history,” displayed them in the hallways of Reed College and loaned them to the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon for an exhibition. Reed College has also featured the collection in a cover story of its Reed Magazine (see link to the left). With my partner A.R. Wallace (who is largely responsible for the current website design, its earlier versions configured by Margot Kniffin and then Amanda Stephenson), I’ve traveled to the Dazu cliff faces where the Song Dynasty sculptures three-dimensionally portray the hell magistrates and tortures, and I’ve visited the 20th century Fengdu theme park in which broken and dusty life-size demonic automatons forever saw, grind and perforate their equally broken and dusty victims. (Our Dazu and Fengdu photographs are used in the A Series annotation on this website.) And I’ve endeavored to create a useful website resource that fully commentates upon one sequence of hell scrolls and also provides a database with scores of additional individual scrolls for your research and pleasure. But the gates of Taizong’s Hell are only beginning to open.

As the collection makes its way to its next life....

It must be reiterated that Taizong’s Hell is a strictly amateur endeavor, that studying 19th- and 20th-century notions of Chinese hell is a hobby and not an occupation as my own research lies two millennia earlier in the Han Dynasty. Even so, I have plans for the collection’s future if I can muster the resources and energy:

Only recently did I finally come across another copy of that 1984 exhibition catalog, this time in the Harvard-Yenching Library. While there, I photocopied all of it and left it on a table marked for books to be reshelved. From my own desk, I could see the librarian pick up that catalog, page through it and, instead of reshelving it, take it back to her own desk where she spent a long time perusing the fascinating images. The spectacle of the hell scrolls inherently appeals to something in us, and our successors will continue to study just what that something is.