The Hanging Coffin

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First appearing during the Spring and Autumn Period (722-481BC), hanging coffin is a unique funeral and sacrifice custom of the minority groups in southern China. People put the bodies of their ancestors into wooden coffins that were later placed in caves of precipitous cliffsides.

Most coffins were made with one whole piece of wood into various shapes. It was said that the hanging coffins could prevent bodies from being taken by beasts and also bless the soul eternally.

  Famous Hanging Coffin Sites :

While hanging coffins can be found in many places in China, the strange thing is all of them only existed for a certain period in history. Those in Wuyi Mountain are the first appear in China, as early as in the Zhou Dynasty (1027-777BC) while those in Gongxian County of Southwest china’s Sichuan province are the most recent, which also marked the end of the hanging coffin custom.

Hanging Coffins of Bo People in Gongxian, Sichuan Provinve
Hanging Coffins of Guyue People in Dragon Tiger Mountain
Hanging Coffins of Guyue People in Wuyi Mountain

The mystery of hanging coffins

Why did the ancient people bury the dead in hanging coffins?

According to historical records, the Bo people believed “Coffins set high are considered auspicious. The higher they are the more propitious for the dead”. Also, after experiencing years of wars and natural disasters, the Bo people dreamed of going somewhere peaceful and quiet after their death. That is why they chose to rest their bodies on the precipices with the mountains and rivers around, all peaceful, beautiful and quiet. The Guyue people, on the other hand, held a high esteem for high mountains, and believed the higher the hanging coffin was placed; the better they could be protected.

How did the ancient people do it?

So how did the ancient people, including the Bo people and Guyue people, do it? This question once caused heated discussion among experts . Some believe the coffins were lowered down with ropes from the top of the mountain. Some ought the coffins were put in place with wooden stakes inserted into the cliff surface as artificial climbing aids. Others feel that earth ramps were the answer.

Cui Chen, a curator of the Yibin Museum, who examined the three different ways the coffins of the Bo people could have been put in place, has this to say:

“Earth ramps might have been used but experts discount this solution due to the amount of labor required, which would have been difficult in an underpopulated area. A timber scaffold supported on stakes in the cliff might have offered a plausible explanation but years of investigation have failed to find even a single stake hole. On balance the third option of lowering the coffins on ropes from above had always seemed feasible and now cultural specialists have found the telltale marks of the ropes which were used all these years ago. And so this part of the mystery of the hanging coffins has now been resolved.”
During the later years of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the imperial army cruelly oppressed the ethnic minority peoples of Southwestern China Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces. In particular, the Duzhangman and Bo Peoples fell victims of massacre. To escape their oppression, the Bo migrated to new locations. They hid their real names and assimilated with other ethnic groups. Like their culture they have disappeared but their descendents are still here for they are a part of us.
How the Guyue people hung the coffins onto the Fairy-water Rocks of Longhushan (Dragon TigerMountain) remains a mystery, since the hanging coffins are so dangerously located. Over the years, it has taken on a mystic air. Some people say the coffins were hung up with the aid from the immortals in the heaven, while others say there are invaluable treasures within the caves. Longhushan Administration Bureau once offered a 300,000 yuan ($US 36298) reward for solving the mystery, but so far no one has won the reward.

 

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