Hanging Coffins and the Mysterious Bo People of China
Throughout our long history we humans have come up with some very creative ways of burying our dead and have built some very elaborate tombs, but one of the most fascinating funeral customs I have come across is that of the ‘Hanging Coffins’ of Asia. Found mainly in south western China, but also in the Philippines and Indonesia, these burials are coffins that literally seem to be hanging in the air off the side of a cliff, often in a gorge with a river running through it. Some of these coffins have been hanging for several thousand years, so who put them there and how did they do it?
In China, the coffins were made by the mysterious Bo People, an ethnic minority who used to live on the borders of China’s Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, and the Guyue people. The vibrant culture of the Bo People developed around three thousand years ago and the early Bo People aided the Western Zhou in ousting their Yin rulers at the end of the Shang Dynasty around 1100 BC. They flourished until four hundred years ago when they mysteriously vanished from the area. Nobody is exactly sure what caused this disappearance, but during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) they were persecuted and massacred by the Imperial Army. It is believed that many of the survivors decided to flee to neighbouring regions to survive; changing their names to avoid detection and merging into the local populations.
So far around three hundred hanging coffins have been found in Sichuan and Yunnan Province and the experts believe there are still more to find. Recently these ancient coffins have been undergoing renovation and local expert Li Chan revealed that during the work a further sixteen burials had been discovered. They have restored more than forty of these unique coffins; first cleaning them, then measuring and classifying them before finally recording them and their contents. To protect the hanging coffins from the elements and preserve them for the future, the ancient wood has been carefully oiled to seal it. If a coffin was found to still contain human remains, these were studied, recorded and then respectfully replaced back into the coffin. A number of interesting grave goods were discovered in the burials, including two blue and white porcelain bowls, an iron knife and a couple of iron spear tips. There was also great excitement when some rock paintings were found, as experts hope that these will help to shed more light on the culture and beliefs of this ancient civilisation.
What Were the Hanging Coffins Made From?
The hanging coffins have been found in lots of different shapes and sizes, but most of them are notable for having been crafted from a single piece of wood, many originally with bronze covers, and they were not painted. They either lie on beams that have been driven into the side of the cliff, were placed on projecting outcrops of rock or were hidden in high up, seemingly inaccessible, caves. The lowest coffins hang about 10metres in the air while the highest are up around 130 metres. They were first used for burials in the Wuyi Mountains during Zhou dynasty that lasted from 1027-777 BC and the most recent are found in Gongxian County and date to the disappearance of the Bo People around 400 years ago, ending a funerary tradition that had lasted for thousands of years.
It was the Guyue people who made some of the earliest hanging coffins, dating to around 2500 years ago in the time of the Warring State period. These earliest examples were put in caves that had formed in the smooth cliff faces of the Fairy-Water Rocks in the area of the Dragon-Tiger Mountain. Most of these burials are to be found hanging between 20 and 50 metres above the Luxi River, with some of them being as high up as 300 metres. Nobody even knew these burials were there until 1978, as the cliff face was too smooth to be climbed and they could not be seen from the ground. It wasn’t until archaeologists started to explore the cliffs and excavate in the caves that these unique coffins came to light. Many interesting artefacts were also found in and around the burials, such as pottery, musical instruments and ornaments carved from jade.
All of these coffins were crafted from a very large, single piece of Nanmu wood, which is a wood very like cedar and is often used in furniture production in the region. There was a great deal of variation in the sizes and shapes of the caskets. Some contain multiple interments, while others contain a single body. A popular shape was that of a ship or boat, which is thought to reflect the dependence these people had on using ships as a means of travel and undertaking commerce. They also found coffins shaped like the roof of a house and dug-out canoes, as well as the more familiar rectangular shaped ones.
So What Was the Significance of the Hanging Coffins?
The big question is why did these people create these hanging burials? What was the significance to them of having their coffins suspended so high in the air? Once insight comes from a Chinese gentleman called Li Jing writing in the Yuan Dynasty (c. 1279-1368) in his ‘Brief Chronicles of Yunnan’, where he states ‘Coffins set high are auspicious. The higher they are the more propitious for the dead. And those whose coffins fell to the ground sooner were considered to be more fortunate’.
Being buried at a great height might also have symbolised being nearer to the gods, placing the occupant of the coffin closer to the heavens. Also the Bo People lived through some troubled times, enduring years of wars, unrest, crop failures and natural disasters. So maybe they craved peace and tranquillity in the afterlife, and looked forward to spending eternity surrounded by the beauty of nature.
The Guyue people had slightly different beliefs, as to them the mountains were sacred and they had a deep reverence for high places. A more practical reason that has been put forward is that the higher the coffins could be suspended, then the less likely they were to be broken apart and scavenged by wild animals.
How Do You Think They Hung the Coffins?
How Did They Hang the Coffins?
Another mystery which has not been solved satisfactorily is how they managed to suspend the coffins from the mountainside. The method they used has been hotly debated by scholars as some think that the coffins were lowered from the top of the cliffs by ropes, others believe that wooden stakes were driven into the cliff face so they could climb up and others believe that they constructed earth ramps at the base of the cliffs which they could then drag the coffins up.
The creation of earth ramps argument doesn’t really stack up as shifting that much dirt would have required a lot of labour and this was a sparsely populated part of China at that time. In addition, no evidence has been found of such constructions. Likewise, there is no evidence for the timber climbing posts or scaffold method, as not a single post hole has yet been found in any of the hillsides. The only method where there is evidence for is lowering the coffins over the side, as some of the coffins have marks that show where the ropes rubbed as they were being hung.
How the Guyue people placed their coffins onto the rocky outcrops of Dragon-Tiger Mountain is a bigger mystery, as it would have been very dangerous to try to reach them either carrying or lowering something as heavy as a wooden casket containing a human body. It is still whispered that these people had supernatural powers at their disposal and used magic to create their high burials. There is also a legend that a great treasure is still waiting to be found in the difficult to reach caverns where they made some of their burials.
The mysteries of the hanging coffins and what caused the disappearance of the Bo People may never be fully understood. But hopefully as the renovation work and new archaeological excavation is undertaken a clearer picture should emerge of this ancient funeral tradition and the culture, way of life and beliefs of these ancient people.
Hanging Coffin Sagada image Jungarcia888 Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported
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