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Hanging Coffins and the Mysterious Bo People of China

Updated on October 21, 2016
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Cynthia is an Administrator, has a degree in Business Economics and History and is a qualified Hypnotherapist. She loves to write & travel

Hanging Coffin at Hubei, China
Hanging Coffin at Hubei, China | Source

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.

Hanging Coffins, Sagada, Philippines
Hanging Coffins, Sagada, Philippines | Source

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?

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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 Hubei image Peter Tritthart Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

Hanging Coffin Sagada image Jungarcia888 Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

© 2013 CMHypno

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      KIPRONOH kirui of Kenya 5 months ago

      who are these Bo people in the first case... very very intersesting story . Hahaaaa....

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 2 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Thanks for reading the hub poetryman6969. How to bury our dead and ensure they reach the afterlife safely seems to have always fascinated us humans and we have come up with many ingenious ways over the millenia

    • poetryman6969 profile image

      poetryman6969 2 years ago

      An interesting historical mystery. If often turns out that the real people used a mixture of the suggested methods and they almost always did something that no one thought of.

      One of the more interesting ways of dealing with the dead I have heard about involves leaving their bodies out for the buzzards to pick over. It looks gross and sounds gross but if you think about it, returning yourself back to nature and the cycle of life if not the worse way to treat the dead.

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      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Thanks for reading the hub and leaving a great comment ologsinquito. I also think they were showing a great deal of care and respect for their dead.

    • ologsinquito profile image

      ologsinquito 3 years ago from USA

      This was very interesting. What a mystery. But it seems like a nice thing they did for their dead. Hanging these coffins might have preserved them from the inevitable decay if they were buried.

    • Miebakagh57 profile image

      Miebakagh Fiberesima 3 years ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

      The world is still full of wonders to resolve.

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Thanks for reading and commenting Phyllis. I love ancient mysteries and I think it would be a big shame if we solved them all!

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Glad you found the hub informative MG Singh. Thanks for reading and commenting

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Thank you for she share and the vote up Shyron and glad you found the hanging coffins interesting

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Thanks for reading and commenting Tom. I also can think of worse places to spend eternity than a cliff with a beautiful view of the countryside

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Thanks for your kind words Paradise7 and glad you enjoyed reading the hub

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Thanks for stopping by and hope you are doing well Izzy. Yes I can certainly find obscure topics to write about. Probably explains why I'm not rich lol! but far more interesting to write about than forex and computers.

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      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Glad you found the hub interesting lisanvorst. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Thanks ziyena - we do live in a very interesting, wonderful world

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Thanks for reading and commenting David. We have thought up some amazing funerary practices throughout history. I saw a piece in a magazine just recently about a group of child mummies been found high up on a cliff in the Amazon, pointing towards the village they would have lived in

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      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Thanks for reading the hub DreamerMeg and I'm glad you found the hub interesting

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      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Thanks for stopping by Randy and reading the hub. So you don't fancy your coffin being hung over the side of the cliff? I could think of worse things - a nice cliff with a good view is better than an urn stuffed in the back of a cupboard lol!

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Fascinating subject and a well-written hub -- I enjoyed reading it. The many mysteries of the ancients is sometime mind-boggling yet so very interesting. Well done.

    • MG Singh profile image

      MG Singh 3 years ago from Singapore

      Nice and informative post on China. Added to my knowledge

    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 3 years ago from Texas

      Congratulations CMHypno on HOTD, this is very interesting.

      Voted up, Amazing and interesting and shared.

    • Tom Schumacher profile image

      Tom Schumacher 3 years ago from Huntington Beach, CA

      Interesting hub! Although I prefer cremation over burial, if the latter were my custom I rather like the idea of being placed in a coffin and suspended over a cliff overlooking a gorge. By all accounts Hubei in China seems to be a peaceful and beautiful resting place. - Voted up.

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 3 years ago from Upstate New York

      Really fascinating and one of the best Hub of the Day that I've read in a while. Congratulations!

    • IzzyM profile image

      IzzyM 3 years ago from UK

      Wow Cynthia, you find some really obscure and interesting topics to write about! I'd never heard of hanging coffins before, so thanks for that :)

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      Lisa VanVorst 3 years ago from New Jersey

      Very interesting article and great pictures.

    • ziyena profile image

      ziyena 3 years ago from ... Somewhere Out There ...

      World culture is so amazing ... always learning something new. Great Hub!

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      David Trujillo Uribe 3 years ago from Medellin, Colombia

      Human culture is awesome; we learn something new every day. Here in Colombia, the pre-columbine cultures used to wrap their dead in hammocks, the true purpose for these delightful resting cloths. The dead hanged from their huts along common day practices.

    • DreamerMeg profile image

      DreamerMeg 3 years ago from Northern Ireland

      Really interesting. Hadn't heard of these before.

    • Randy Godwin profile image

      Randy Godwin 3 years ago from Southern Georgia

      Humans seem to have considered many alternatives for placing their dearly departed for eternity, Cynthia. I'm glad we Americans don't have the option of suspending them over a cliff. Congrats on another fascinating HOTD choice!

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      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Thanks for your kind comment Miebakagh57, We humans have come up with some pretty fantastic ways of burying our dead in the past and its awe inspiring the amount of time, effort and resources that we have put into building tombs, preserving bodies and carving coffins.

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      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Thank you Levertis Steele. There are indeed many mysteries still to solve on our Earth, which I think is great as it would be very boring if we knew it all

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      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Thank you for your kind congratulations JayeWisdom and glad you enjoyed the hub

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      Jaye Denman 3 years ago from Deep South, USA

      Congratulations for having Hub of the Day for this intriguing article. I enjoyed reading about this mysterious tradition very much.

      Voted Up++

      Jaye

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      Levertis Steele 3 years ago from Southern Clime

      Just when I think that I have learned about the most mysterious things of Earth, something else pops up. I imagine that more secrets are nestled in or on the earth somewhere. When I think that the ocean is said to contain more animal and plant life than the land, I can only think, "What a world!"

      Could it be that these coffins are hanging due to centuries of erosion? The big question of “How did they do it?” reminds me of the wonderments surrounding the great Pyramids of Egypt. Perhaps the evidence has worn away. Nevertheless, they did it. Considering the human history of problem solving, the Guyue people were probably slaughtered. (`~`)

      A hub well done! Thanks for sharing such interesting information, including the graphics.

    • Miebakagh57 profile image

      Miebakagh Fiberesima 3 years ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

      Thanks CMHypno. I had read stories of ancients burying the dead in the river, burning them up and even choping the up with knives for birds and jackals. But to hand the dead without knowing how it is done is a wonder.

      Miebakagh57

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      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Glad you enjoyed the hub Angara.com. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment

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      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Glad that you enjoyed the hub mythbuster. I've never understood why people think that our ancestors were less intelligent than we are today. Just surviving back then was a much tougher job and I wonder how many of us would get through life without central heating, computers, washing machines and a 24 hr supermarket around the corner. Yet they also built magnificent monuments like the pyramids, produced dazzling art and had a much more sophisticated concept of life and spirituality than most of us have today.

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      mythbuster 3 years ago from Utopia, Oz, You Decide

      Proof that ancient peoples had some awesome technology/building methods (and were not "less smart" than us or "not advanced in thinking") that we, with all our beneficial advances in technology to date, cannot figure out? I've really enjoyed this article...still playing the videos. Thanks for bringing out this topic - very interesting.

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Thanks for reading the hub Alastar and leaving a great comment. I agree with you, we sure do have some strange habits and customs. I think that most of them started off being very practical and common sense for the times but as the years roll on we don't update and modify them to better suit the modern world.

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 3 years ago from North Carolina

      You know the Viking Runes are still more subjective than science. We still have a lot of mysteries on this earth. It is certainly possible they were placed there by means we don't fully understand. And for that exactly why? Nearer to the Gods for the highest? Maybe, maybe not. Shesh, mankind sure has all kinds of ways in this regards. Most interesting Hub, Cynthia, and thanks for informing of these peoples and their practices.

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Thanks for reading the hub and commenting drbj. A time machine is what we need. You could go back in time and interview one of the mysterious Bo People and ask them why they hung the coffins.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 3 years ago from south Florida

      What an interesting mystery you are sharing, Cynthia. Why did those ancient folks hang the coffins in the first place and how did they accomplish that feat? Thanks for this fascinating journey which deserves two Ups!

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      What would the world be without mysteries? I think that as soon as we know everything (hopefully not possible!) a big part of our reason for living will be gone. Thanks for the read and leaving a comment

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Thanks for reading and commenting greatstuff. There are also hanging coffins in some parts of the Philippines, so it was a custom that was spread fairly widely across Asia. I really wonder where the custom first started and where the first hanging coffin was

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      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Glad you found the hanging coffins interesting FlourishAnyway. There are so many fascinating things around the world and I really enjoy finding out more about them.

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      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      I agree Nell, these ancient traditions are fascinating. It makes you wonder what archaeologists of the future are going to think of our culture when they dig up our graveyards in a couple of thousands years? Thanks for reading and leaving a comment

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      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Thanks for reading and commenting Jodah. I came across a piece about the hanging coffins in a newspaper. They intrigued me, so I did some more research and wrote the hub

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      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Thanks for reading the hub Alicia. To go to all that trouble, the height of the hanging coffins must have had a great deal of significance, so it would be fascinating to know what really motivated them

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      Anna Haven 3 years ago from Scotland

      Very Interesting. Even more so as they still haven't solved part of the mystery.

    • greatstuff profile image

      Mazlan 3 years ago from Malaysia

      I read a similar article of the Indonesian tribe, Toraja in Sulawesi that, despite being Christians (converted when the Dutch ruled the country) they still practiced this elaborate burial ceremony that can last for days. I did not know that a similar practice is also done by a tribe in China. Thanks for sharing.

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      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      This is really different. I had never heard of this practice or these people. Voted up and more, plus pinning.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

      This was so fascinating. I have seen a bit about them on TV but not in so much depth as this. Ancient peoples absolutely fascinate me with their traditions, and this is one of the most bizarre, but fascinating too, voted up and shared! nell

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      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      What an interesting hub. I had never heard of these hanging coffins either. It is rare to hear of something 'new' that hasn't been spread over the Internet before. Enthralling. Voted up.

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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is very interesting, Cynthia. It's intriguing to think about why hanging the coffins was so significant for the people in those areas and fascinating to think about how they put the coffins into place!

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Glad you enjoyed the hub MysticMoonlight and thanks for reading and commenting. There are so many fascinating things to see around the world and these hanging coffins are definitely on my list!

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      MysticMoonlight 3 years ago

      Fascinating. I've never heard of these hanging coffins before. Great read! Voted :)