After more than two months of hard work, renovation of the hanging coffins of the Bo people in Gongxian County of southwest China's Sichuan Province has now finished. This has been the biggest ever project to stabilize and conserve hanging coffins in China. 43 have been restored and 16 previously unknown coffins have been found. In the process new light has been shed on the secrets of these mysterious artifacts.
Preserving the Relics of Bo Civilization
The recent renovation of hanging coffins in Gongxian County started in September 2002. It is the third time that large-scale maintenance work has been undertaken at the site since the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949. The two earlier projects were in 1974 and 1985.
According to Cui Chen, curator of the Yibin Museum, hanging coffins come in three types. Some are cantilevered out on wooden stakes. Some are placed in caves while others sit on projections in the rock. All the three forms can be found in Gongxian where most of China's hanging coffins are located.
The coffins are mainly clustered around Matangba and Sumawan where some 100 coffins are hung on the limestone cliffs to both sides of the 5,000-meter-long Bochuangou.
Survey reports from the early 1990s show Gongxian County having a total of 280 hanging coffins. However in the past 10 years or so nearly 20 have fallen. The coffins were hung at least 10 meters above the ground with the highest ones reaching 130 meters.
Unlike previous conservation work, which focused only on consolidation of the wooden stakes, this time the experts also worked on the coffins themselves. In addition they grouted the cracks in the rock where this was necessary to stabilize the limestone of the cliffs.
The Bo people have become lost in the pages of the history of human civilization. There is now some urgency in the work to salvage and protect the last somber record, which they have left us in the form of their hanging coffins.
Remains of the Bo People
On September 16, 2002 a field team composed mainly of cultural and museum specialists and technicians, went to Matangba. On September 24 they examined their first coffin hung about 20 meters above ground. Here they found the remains of one of the Bo People who had lived some 400 years ago. The skeleton was that of a tall individual. In the coffin they found sand and silt but no burial articles and Cui says this points to the possibility of theft. The coffin, weighing about 200 kg and measuring some 2.0 meters long and 0.7 meters wide, had been cut from a single log. Both the body and lid of the coffin were studded.
Members of the field team follow rigorous procedures in the cleaning, measuring, classifying and recording of each coffin. Tung oil is applied liberally to preserve the ancient timber then the remains are gently put back and the coffin is returned to the place it had occupied over all these centuries.
By the second day, five coffins had been opened. A number of precious cultural relics had come to light. These included two blue and white porcelain bowls, an iron knife notable for its unassuming simplicity, another smaller knife and two iron spear points. The experts have dated them to the Ming Dynasty.
The old records told of only 29 coffins but this time, 16 additional ones were found. These were the ones most difficult to find being located mainly in caves and concealed behind grass and bushes. While examining the coffins some silk and linen textiles were also found. The only coffin to be found on a rock outcrop was not studded like the others. The cover and body of the coffins were connected with timber fastenings.
Cliff paintings were also found. These are of great significance to the study of the lives, work, politics, military affairs and culture of the Bo People.
A Lost Culture
The Bo were an ethnic minority people living astride the borders of modern day Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. There they created a brilliant culture as early as 3,000 years ago. The ancestors of the Bo helped the Western Zhou (c.1100 771 BC) to overthrow the ruling Yin at the end of the Shang Dynasty (c.1600 1100 BC).
The Bo differed from other ethnic groups in their burial customs. Typically hewn from durable hardwood logs, their hanging coffins went unpainted. The most recent hanging coffins were made up to about 400 years ago in the middle and later periods of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), while many of the earliest ones date back 1,000 years to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). To date, the earliest hanging coffin was one found in the Three Gorges area, dating back about 2,500 years to the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC- 476 BC).
The hanging coffin was the most widespread form of burial in ancient southwest China. However, the practice ended with the mysterious disappearance of the Bo People. Those who came after knew them from the hanging coffins and the paintings they left behind like faint echoes on the cliffs. Their ancient flowering of culture like that of the Maya is no more.
Visitors to Matangba cannot help asking: Why did the Bo people bury their dead in hanging coffins? How did they do it? And why did the Bo people disappear?
The hanging coffins were once a hot topic among architects, paleoanthropologists, folklorists and artists. In the Spring of 1941, experts on antiquities including Liang Sicheng, Lin Huiyin, Liu Dunzhen and Chen Mingda arrived at Sumawan, which is today part of Gongxian County.
From far off, they saw a cliff some 600 meters long and rising 120 meters. Nearly 100 coffins hung on the cliff side supported on wooden stakes wedged into the rock. Other coffins rested on rock outcrops. The sight aroused heated discussion among the experts.
Some believed the coffins must have been lowered down with ropes from the top of the mountain. Some thought the coffins had been put in place using wooden stakes inserted into the cliff face to be used as artificial climbing aids. Others felt that scaling ladders were the answer. Lin said they could leave the mystery for later generations to solve.
Why did the Bo people bury their dead so high? Li Jing writing during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) offers a clue in his Brief Chronicles of Yunnan. "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."
Cui Chen who is Curator of the Yibin Museum examines three different ways the coffins could have been put in place. "Earth ramps might have been used but experts discount this solution due to the extent of the labor required, which would have been difficult in an under-populated 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, the imperial army cruelly oppressed the ethnic minority peoples of Sichuan and Yunnan. 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 integrated into other ethnic groups. Like their culture they have disappeared but their descendents are still here for they are a part of us.
(China.org.cn by Li Jinhui, February 10, 2003)