The hanging coffins in China

China is a country with a long history, a rich cultural tradition, an ancient civilization and lots of mysteries..One of the most mysterious and intriguing sights in this region of the world, are the Hanging Coffins. These coffins are stowed in clefts on the vertical rock faces, as to how they got up there in the first place, no one really knows. The logistics alone of carting something that weighs over 300 kilograms up those steep cliffs is enough to make you wonder how it was ever done in the first place.  Some of the coffins are placed precariously on wooden poles sticking out of the rock while others are on the rocks themselves or placed in caves.

Historians believed that this practice was first spotted during the Spring and Autumn Period (722-481BC) in China. It was eventually traced back as being the funeral and sacrificial ritual of the minority groups in southern China, in particular the Bo people in Gongxian County of southwest China’s Sichuan Province. Little is know about the Bo people and their culture and with almost no documented evidence of their existence, archaeologists and historians were stumped. Upon examination, it is believed that the bodies inside the coffins are those of the ancestors of the Bo people. So why go to all the trouble of placing the coffins on the cliff’s face and risk possible injury or death if things were to go awry.  The Bo people believed that by hanging the coffins, they were preventing beasts from desecrating the remains and it also bless the soul eternally.

There is a cluster of hanging coffins around  Matangba and Sumawan where some 100 coffins are hung on the limestone cliffs on both sides of the 5,000-meter-long Bochuangou. Records from the early 1990s showed Gongxian county had a total of 280 hanging coffins. However in the past two decades, nearly 20 have fallen. There is an ongoing conservation effort to stabilize the structure and prevent any more coffins from further falling. This phenomena is not only restricted to Gongxian county, from remote locations in China to the Philippines, there are other places who hang their dead, so to speak.

This particular ancient ritual has continued to baffle archaeologists and academics. Why did they place their in such an unorthodox location? Surely if they buried them deep enough in the ground, animals couldn’t get to them. Were they worried about heavy rain washing away the coffins? There are many many questions surrounding the rationale of this practice. In addition, given the technology available then, how did they mange to get the bodies up there? The coffins were hung at least 10 meters above the ground with the highest ones reaching a whooping 130 meters! There have been many theories offered, Li Jing of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) wrote “Coffins set high are considered 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.” A few explanations were offered as to how the coffins were transported, from ramps to scaffolding but experts have dismissed all of them due to a lack of evidence. The most plausible method seem to be by lowering the coffins on ropes from above, and experts are now saying that the telltale marks of the ropes on the coffins corroborates this theory. However despite this, no one can say for sure what really happened.

Perhaps we will never find out how they got up there or why they were put up there in the first place, and the legend and stories of the Bo people will hopefully continue to be one of the great mysteries of an ancient civilization that will intrigue future generations to come.

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One thought on “The hanging coffins in China

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