Archaeological travel guide to the Hanging Coffins of Sichuan– the last remnants of the Bo, a people who were exterminated by China’s Ming Dynasty over 500 years ago.
Name: The Hanging Coffins of Bo (Bórén Xuánguān | 僰人悬棺)
Where: Luobiao, Sichuan, China
Location: 26.209313, 106.939151
Description: The Bo people’s hanging coffins are the last remnants of an extinct culture who inexplicably hung their dead from cliffs dozens of meters in the air.
Getting there: The hanging coffins are walking distance from Luobiao.
Cost: CNY 20 / 3.00 USD
How do you examine and address a culture that not only faded into historical obscurity, but was willfully exterminated from history? Their language, architecture, culture, all wiped from existence in an act of genocide? You can start by examining anything left of them that does remain. In the case of the Bo people, what remains is their Hanging Coffins.
The burial practices of people around the world from ancient to modern are a fascinating display of cultural individuality. A combination of religions, lifestyles, and natural surroundings, these expressions of reverence to the dead vary greatly. Monuments as grandiose as the Great Pyramid of Khufu or as solemn and polarizing as the Tibetan sky burials, these remark on both a people’s and an individual’s deepest beliefs with respect to their place in the grander universe. And the practice they use to care for their dead can tell us more about a culture than one might think possible at first.
In this regard, the Bo people are not alone, but somewhat unique in their treatment of the dead and quite unlike most neighboring cultures in the region who traditionally buried their dead.
The Hanging Coffins of Bo (Bórén Xuánguān | 僰人悬棺)
The Bo placed their dead in wooden coffins carved from a single tree. These Bo coffins were then suspended from sheer cliff faces dozens or hundreds of meters in the air. These burial monuments would usually contain the body in several layers of clothing, along with a few personal ornaments.
The Story of The Hanging Coffins of Bo
The sad truth is that very little is known about the Bo people. They are known to have thrived during the time leading up to the Ming Dynasty. In this era, many of the ethnic minorities that were living on the outskirts of the Chinese nation were regarded as tributary states and ruled by tribal chieftains known as Tusi. These chieftains and their tribes would be granted a level of autonomy so long as they recognized and paid tribute to the central authority in Nanjing (later Beijing).
The Bo were one of these tribal ethnic groups, although little is either known of them or recorded of them within the written extensive bureaucratic records of the Chinese.
Legends of the Bo People
Despite their absence from written history, the Bo people have become the stuff of legend among the southwestern mountain valleys which they once called home. These legends include locals and Ming Dynasty soldiers claiming the Bo people capable of flight, dubbing them “Subjugators of the Sky” and “Sons of the Cliffs”.
One such legend, as related by research Wong How Man in his article in Archaeology Magazine, describes a local man challenging the Bo people (out of his own jealousy of their prosperity) to conquer the water and then to conquer the sky. To meet this challenge, the Bo buried their dead in the nearby lakes, and then on the cliff sides. From the cliffside in the words of their challenger Luo En, the ancestors looked down on the Bo like the stars and moon, ensuring their continued prosperity.
The deputy director of the Yibin City Museum, He Zeyu, tells of a local saying:
The idiom indicates that popular local idea that people with the last name “He” are actually descended from the Bo.
In a 2008 Discovery Channel documentary led by Wong How Man and the China Exploration & Research Society, they indeed interview several men belonging to a Yunnan family named He. The story they tell seems to echo that legend told in Mr. Man’s 1991 article in Archaeology Magazine.
Q: Did they tell you why the coffins were hung on cliffs?— Mysterious Hanging Coffins of China (2008)
A: Not a word. There is a legend that hundreds of years ago, the He family was very powerful and wealthy. They were told, “If you hang your coffins on cliffs, braving the wind and rain, your descendants will grow more prosperous. So they did. They hung their coffins on cliffs. But the coffins were blown away, and the fortune of the He family was swept away with them. The He family fell into decline.
These are, of course, folk legends popularized in rural communities over hundreds of years, with no direct evidence pertaining to the Bo, their culture, or the possibility of their descendants. For that, we turn to archaeological research.
Archaeology of the Bo People
The Hanging Coffins of the Bo, and the items contained within, are the only true evidence of their material culture. No extensive study of these coffins has yet occurred. However, there were two officially recorded studies done on the Bo coffins. The first of these studies was in 1946, when 6 coffins that had fallen from their cliffside resting places were opened and recorded. The second study occurred in 1974, when 10 previously untouched coffins were removed from the cliffs and studied.
One of the earliest non-Chinese writings about the Bo coffins comes from David Graham, who in the 1930s wrote of fallen coffins being found that contained skeletons and silver bracelets among the personal items of the deceased. It was considered back luck to keep these items by the locals.
Other items recovered from the coffins are displayed in the Bo Culture Museum at the Matangba (麻塘坝) coffin site in Luobiao. Some of these items include:
• Copper bracelet
• Wooden plaque
• Earthenware bowl
• Lacquered wooden plate
• Men’s and women’s embroidered clothing
Among the coffins studied in 1946 and 1974, the researchers noted the different clothing worn by 2 distinct classes of people in the burials. A lower-class burial would usually have only a single layer of simple clothes. Burials for higher classes would often contain multiple layers of clothing, averaging 6-10 layers on a single body, with one coffin from the 1974 study having 29 layers of shirts and 13 layers of pants.
The more elaborate clothes found in the upper-class burials share a similar art style to murals found in caves, burial sites, and mountain fortifications used by the Bo. In these stuffed, researchers examined 103 pieces of clothing — 2 from silk and all the rest from hemp. The clothing was made in a loose nature suggesting it was useful for the Bo to use in horse riding.
The murals mentioned above are the only other significant indication of Bo material culture found by archaeologists other than the coffins. These murals are typically small, red paintings and murals which depict scenes from life. One common theme is adept horsemanship, which was also reflected in the clothing found in burials. Another motif is people depicted with either raised hair or a father sticking up from their hair. This look is still used by the Yi ethnic group, and was a style recorded in the area as far back as the Western Han Dynasty.
This record was written by the Chinese historian Sima Qian, who was employed by the dynastic government to document the ethnic minorities of Sichuan. Such a record backs up the idea that there has long been, at the very least, a tenuous link between the subsequent Chinese dynasties and the tribes living in the outer reaches of the Middle Kingdom.
Relations with the Ming Dynasty
Despite the longstanding status quo of the tribal leaders retaining a relative autonomy along the borders of the dynastic Chinese state, conditions began to change in the era of the Ming Dynasty. China had once again established contact with the outside world and the influences of this were beginning to make their way into the mainland. One major influence was the introduction of New World crops to China. Crops from the Americas, such as maize and potatoes were able to grow in previously uncultivated areas of the country, leading to an immense expansion of the Han Chinese majority into these areas.
This expansion of direct Ming control came at the cost of existing ethnic minorities in these areas. It is proposed that this is what brought the Bo into conflicts with the Ming Dynasty, as the Mings also faced similar uprisings from several other minority groups.
Despite relentless persecution from the Ming dynasty, the Bo of Sichuan and Yunnan were natives of the habitat and decided to fight the incoming aggression of the Mings rather than be subjugated. Remote mountaintops and cliffside still exist where the Bo made their fortifications.
Although not publicized in the same way as many other historic sites in China, some of these fortifications can still be visited. Ling Xue (凌雪) was one such mountain fortification highlighted in the 2008 documentary. The fortress, translated to “Castle in the Sky”, contains several signs of the Bo’s occupations, including a defensible fortress gate, stone cooking stupa, and underground lookout tunnels.
According to He Zeyu of the Yibin City Museum, local people gather here annually on 19 June to burn incense for their ancestors. He suggests this could be to commemorate the date the Bo people lost to the Ming.
The final recorded battle between the Ming and the Bo occurred at Jiusi Mountain (九絲山). Here, as He Zeyu explains, the Mings laid siege to the fortress for 10 days in the year 1573 CE, and ended up massacring 40,000 Bo people, effectively exterminating the remaining Bo population.
Legacy of the Bo People
Given the history of conflict between the Han Chinese majority and the many other minorities, there remains a stigma surrounding the idea of ethnic minorities. This history includes not only incidents like the Ming genocide of the Bo, and similar persecutions during the Cultural Revolution of the 1900s, but also the Han majority being subject to minority-led dynasties such as the Yuan and Qing, led by the Mongols and Manchus, respectively. Such eras fueled much of the Han Chinese nationalist sentiments seen during the Cultural Revolution.
In the continued interview with the He family in the 2008 documentary, they touch on this ethnic sensitively:
Q: Did your elders tell you that the people in the hanging coffins were your ancestors?— Mysterious Hanging Coffins of China (2008)
A: They didn’t want us to know. They knew people would tease us. People would insult us. They would laugh and say, “You are the Hanging Coffin people”.
Q: Your ancestors are in the hanging coffins. Do you worship them?
A: Of course we do. What we know may be a legend, but people keep repeating it, and sometimes we say it’s true. But if you do that, people gossip. Some He families in Sichuan are very open about the Bo people being their ancestors. But they have big families, and no one dares bully them. Here there are just a few of us. So if we tell people about it, they will use it against us.
Q: What do you do if a family member dies now?
A: We do what the Han do. We follow the local customs. We dig a grave next to a field.
Q: Have you ever thought of hanging your coffins on cliffs?
A: No. It hasn’t been done for four or five generations. Not for a couple centuries. Hanging the coffins brought bad luck. Who would want to do it today?
Following a purposeful and thorough genocide perpetrated by what is regarded as perhaps the last successful dynasty of ancient China, nothing remains of the Bo culture. Their language, rituals, and behaviors are speculation at best by archaeologists. It’s even unknown if they have any true descendants, although oral traditions linger on and genetic studies are yet to provide a definitive answer on the matter.
Some recent studies published in the 2000s have alluded to the possibility of Bo descendants among the Ku people in Qiubei County of Southern Yunnan. This small group call themselves “Ku”, but are known locally as “Bo” and claim the Bo from Sichuan as their ancestors. Not all, but some, practice hanging coffin burials.
This small ethnic group speaks a type of Loloish language, closely related to Tibetan and Burmese. This is the same language family archaeologists believe the builders of the Hanging Coffins were. More research is ongoing, particularly in the fields of genetics using samples gathered from coffins.
More data is needed, but it may be possible that some small remnant of the Bo evaded the Ming’s genocide and escaped to the far south.
The Bo’s Hanging Coffins
There are 22 known Bo hanging burial sites scattered around southwest China in Sichuan and Yunnan. The most well-known of these is known as Matangba (麻塘坝) or as the Hemp Pond Valley in English. This is where one of the most prominent authors on the Hanging Coffins, Wong How Man, led a National Geographic expedition in 1992.
It was at the Matangba (麻塘坝) site where I also encountered a full coffin on display at the Bo Culture Museum. This coffin was removed during the studies which took place in 1974. An informational display at the museum noted that the coffin is carved from a single piece of nanmu hardwood, measuring:
|Part of Hanging Coffin||Measurement|
|Base height||39 cm|
|Lid height||17 cm|
At another location called Doshaguan (豆沙關), cliffs rise vertically 300 meters above a torrential river. About halfway up this cliff is a small horizontal recess where several Bo coffins are housed. In the aforementioned 2008 documentary expedition by the China Exploration & Research Society and Discovery Channel, the team was unable to reach these coffins at Doshaguan, despite having modern equipment and experienced mountaineers accompanying them.
During this attempt to reach the Doshaguan coffins, mountaineer Liu Hong and safety consultant Roger Graham cited loose rock faces and jagged rocks below as posing too much potential danger. This makes the ancient Bo’s task of scaling the cliffs with a 230 kg coffin even more spectacular when you consider the Bo people had none of this equipment.
There are three main beliefs as to how the coffins were raised to such an area:
- Carve out pegged footholds to create a makeshift walkway
- Send an individual or small group up first and then attach a rope to the coffin
- Lower the coffin down from the top of the cliff
In the same documentary, there is an effort to reenact the Bo funerary process. In this reenactment, local people created and raised a replica coffin to a cliffside using only materials and methods that would have been available to the Bo people 100 years ago. This effort took 12 people and 3 days, and involved attaching ropes to the coffin, and sending 5 individuals to the coffin’s resting location and 7 more on the ground. Through elaborate maneuvering with ropes, these men were able to properly secure the replica coffin in place.
At a site named LongMaGu (Longma Valley 龍馬谷) in northern Yunnan, the documentary expedition investigated rumors of 12 hanging coffins. Upon arrival, the team found 7 caves which could house Bo coffins and skeletons. To reach them, bamboo scaffolding was constructed, which climbers repelled down to the higher caves. 2 of the caves had carved wood and signs of human activity, but no coffins.
The inward slope of these cliffs made them extremely difficult for the climbers to reach.
The one remaining coffin was 300 feet up and badly decomposed. When archaeologist Liu Xu used the scaffolding to reach the in situ coffin, he noted it was decomposed and some of the contents had likely fallen. This coffin was made of the exceptionally hard and rot-resistant nanmu wood., like many also found along the Yangtze River. He noted that it had a curved lid and was made from a single piece of wood, signifying an earlier date, perhaps over 1000 years ago.
Several hypotheses on why these hanging coffins were built by the Bo have been proposed. Lin Xiang, a professor at the University of Sichuan, is one of the leading experts on the Hanging Coffins. He speculates that they embody a way of venerating ancestors by placing them in the sky, closer to heaven. In a more down-to-earth matter, such a method also protects the bodies of these deceased ancestors and keeps them in sight of the descendants they left behind.
Other Hanging Coffins in China
Hanging coffins were not exclusive to the Bo people, and are found in several other locations throughout China. Perhaps the most awe-inspiring of these is within the famous gorges of the Yangtze River, where 200- to 1200-year-old coffins can be seen shoved into small horizontal crevices on an otherwise sheer cliff down to one of the largest and most formidable rivers on Earth.
Outside of the traditional Bo domain of Sichuan and Yunnan in southwestern China, hanging coffins have also been discovered in other provinces, including Chongqing (once a part of Sichuan), Hubei, Zhejiang, and Jianxi. These coffins in more distant lands have been attributed to other cultures than the Bo, and are often from differing time periods as well.
Despite being the practice of several tribal groups, the exact purpose and, perhaps more importantly, the method of laying these revered tombs still eludes archaeologists.
Visiting The Hanging Coffins of Bo
I’ve been to a lot of places in China that are really unique— Austin Guidry, Austin in China
and can’t be found really anywhere else in the world…
But, something I’ve noticed about that is that among those places;
those people have gone to great lengths
and through great effort have put them far away from people
— put them really far away from people in some cases.
But, here was different.
These villages where people live now
and people have been there for a long time…
nowadays, to get from one village to another,
you have to pass the hanging coffins.
You have to — it’s not an option.
So…these people when they’re out doing that
or they’re out tending to their fields…
they see these things every day, like it’s a part
of their daily life.
They’re literally living in the shadow of this history
and it’s not even quote-unquote ‘their history’.
…This is the history of a people that came long before them
and died before they were even here.
These are the departing thoughts of Austin Guidry, a longtime resident of China, contrasting the nature of the Bo burials with many of the other notable historic monuments found throughout China. Although I did not see his video on the Hanging Coffins until a year after I had visited them, the sentiments he spoke about stuck with me as I was writing this article.
There are 22 known Bo Hanging Coffin sites located throughout Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. Of these, the most well-known is located in southern Sichuan, known by varying names as the Matangba Hanging Coffins, the Gongxian Hanging Coffins, or the Luobiao Hanging Coffins. To clarify, Matangba is the name of the physical valley where they’re located, Gongxian is the rather large county, and Luobiao is the name of the small town they are downhill from.
For simplicity’s sake, I’ll be referring to the site as Luobiao.
Welcome to Luobiao
Luobiao is located in southern Sichuan Province, China. While northern and western Sichuan are dominated by the intimidating edges of the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau, their foothills in southern Sichuan enjoy a milder climate in mountain valleys filled with green rice paddies.
This area is about as far from foreign influence as is possible to find in China. The nearest city of any significance, Yibin, is 4 hours away by bus, while Chengdu, the nearest major city is 7 hours away. Indeed, the only real trace of foreign influence in all of Yibin district is a single KFC in the mall on one end of the town. Moving past Yibin City to Luobiao, you really begin to see a different side of the country.
The town of Luobiao is quite literally the end of the road as far as transportation options go. The only route to anywhere else is a bus back the way you came.
The Road to the Hanging Coffins of Bo
While Luobiao is little more than a single-road town, it is also the only center of a vast rural area.
The Hanging Coffins are located about a 20-minute walk downhill from Luobiao’s town center. Standing in the town center, you wonder where such coffins could even be, as it looks like no mountains rise over town.
This is, in fact, correct. Starting from the town’s central monument, the road branching right winds gradually through the lower side of the town until it passes a police station. From here, the view opens up into a valley of beautiful green rice fields surrounded by sheer cliffs.
As the road begins to flatten and cliffs come into view looming over abandoned buildings on your left, you’ll begin seeing strange brown specks mixed in with the rocky outcrops. These are the first signs of the wooden posts and hanging coffins of the Bo.
The Bo Culture Museum
The downhill road from Luobiao you’ve been walking takes you into a relatively flat and fertile valley with sheer cliffs looming immediately to your left. More clips and small rocky hills dot the horizon in the distance to the right. Running alongside the right side of the road is a small stream — small enough that it might be possible to jump over?
This section of road is remote enough that it doesn’t even appear on satellite images of Google Maps. However, there is a bridge where it splits off to the right. Past this bridge is a small archway banner and the location of the Bo Coffin Museum.
Past the entryway, there was no initial sign of anyone. However, the door to the museum was open. I entered expecting to find someone inside, however, the museum was deserted as well.
Inside the Bo Culture Museum was a partially-divided single room containing one mostly intact coffin and the lid of a second The informational sign points out (in Chinese) that this coffin was recovered as part of the study which took place in 1974.
The informational display accompanying the coffin (also mentioned above) details the dimensions of the coffin. It’s not mentioned anywhere if the coffins were roughly standardized, or each made according to the needs and materials available. However, judging by some of the coffins, I would later see outside the museum, they were made of many varying dimensions.
Covering these artifacts were hundreds of notes of Chinese currency. This is a practice known as xiānghuǒ qián (香火钱), literally “incense money”. This idea is to offer money to an object of reverence in order to gain favor and fortune.
Obviously burning incense would not be prudent near an ancient wooden coffin, but the practice seemed out of place. Incense offerings are common at temples, but not at traditional Chinese grave sites.
On another note, all the money offerings were either 1 CNY (~0.15 USD) or less. There were no larger notes.
Along the walls of the room are glass-covered display cases containing photos and brief descriptions of several small artifacts and Bo paintings found in the area. One wooden artifact on display with a photo/description above indicates that it should be accompanied by the other artifacts pictured in the same case. However, many of these are missing from the museum.
Also among the displays are a male and female dressed in traditional Bo clothing. It’s unclear from the display if these garments are actually from recovered Bo coffins (like the ones on display from 1974) or if they are recreations based on the findings, although the latter is more likely.
As I left the museum, I was approached by an old man with a stack of tickets in hand. He asked for 20 CNY (~$3) and waved me off with a small, pointing further down the road to the rest of the coffins.
Exploring China’s Hanging Coffins at Luobiao
Despite some of the Bo hanging coffins being visible before the entrance to the Bo Culture Museum, the vast majority of the site is located past the museum.
This is one of the more curious lost monuments in China. These coffins represent more than simply the burial beliefs of the local Chinese people, they represent all that remains of a people who were entirely eradicated by their fellow neighboring Chinese. This idea made the show of xiānghuǒ qián money for blessings in the museum seem even stranger.
Almost no buildings exist on the road past the museum, leaving you walking the trail along the base of the cliffs with an unobstructed view of the vast green landscape and any coffins that might be still hanging overhead.
One of the most notable features are the hundreds and hundreds of post holes carved into the sides of the cliff. These are roughly square and served to insert and hold the wooden posts which support the coffins. The sheer amount of these holes throughout the cliff faces in the area would make you think that there were thousands of coffins here at one point.
There is another idea proposed for the large number of holes at the Luobiao (Matangba) coffin site in particular. In this theory, these holes were also used to hold wooden posts as a sort of scaffolding system to raise the coffins, not only to hold them up. With such a series of wooden supports, the Bo could construct a makeshift stairway from the ground to where the coffins were rested.
Such a system is not evident at all the coffin sites. However, at Luobiao, the rocky overhangs at the tops of the cliffs stick out much farther out than the base of the cliffs. The diagonal cliff faces would make any effort to use ropes to rappel down from the top and get the receding cliffside almost unthinkable for an individual. To do this while guiding bulky wooden coffins they were trying to secure on to the rocks would be nearly impossible.
The only reasonable way these hanging coffins at Luobiao could have been accessed is from the ground.
About a half kilometer from the Bo Culture Museum is a cave which lends some support to this idea. A modern stairway leads up into a large cavern with some post holes inside and several intact coffins hanging above. It also provides a fantastic panoramic view of the entire valley.
On the northern side of this cave is a collapsed wall. All that remains is about a knee-high base that runs the length of a level path along the cliffside. It’s entirely possible that his wall may have been part of the modern construction and fallen into disrepair. But, given the otherwise good quality of the stairway, this wall appears to have been built and chipped away over a much longer period of time.
I was able to back this up thanks to another blogger who visited the site, Jenny Singleton of Jenny Far Away. After asking her about some of her photos, I learned that there were similar walls built over what would otherwise be exposed cave faces (Check out her Hanging Coffins post to see them) at other locations near Luobiao. According to Jenny, these were located about 2 km past the museum. There was no way to access them and no indication of what might have been inside.
However, given the state of this cave I was already in, I think it’s best that these more intact caves remain off-limits. This cave was covered in modern graffiti of people’s names. Paper and plastic trash were a common site cave floor. I’d hate to see this happen to the more remote and untouched Bo funerary grounds as well.
By the time I exited the cave, it was approaching 5 pm and the sun was already getting low, illuminating the rice fields into a surreal green.
After returning to the museum entryway and beginning the ascent back up to Luobiao, I was approached by a couple smiling men in their truck. Although neither of us could understand each other, they offered to let me hop in the back for a ride back to town. I refused at first, but they pointed out the sun was already setting and insisted again.
I tried to offer them payment for their trouble once we got back to Luobiao’s main intersection, but they refused. Instead, I offered to buy them a beer. We all sat in the main square for about 15 minutes as the small town fell asleep to the high-pitched whine of the local karaoke cracking over old electric speakers
How to Get to The Hanging Coffins of Bo
GPS Coordinates: 26.209313, 106.939151
Luobiao hosts only a single forking road running through the town. Taking the right branch of this road will lead you down a gradual slope into sparser neighborhoods and eventually into a vast mountain valley of green rice fields dotted with blocky, white concrete homes. As long as you are going down, you’re on the right road.
Within about 20 minutes, you will reach the bottom of the valley and begin to notice the vertical cliff faces emerging on the left side. These are where the Hanging Coffins are located. However, before the coffins themselves, you are likely to notice hundreds of holes bored into the rock. These holes originally held the wooden posts which supported the hundreds of hanging coffins which lined this valley—the majority of which have rotten away, leaving the coffins to fall to the ground below.
The road eventually comes to an intersection with the option to turn right over a small bridge, leading to further stretches in the valley. However, just past this intersection is the official entrance to the tourist site of the Hanging Coffins of Bo. A small museum
An ethnic group that once inhabited southwestern China. They were exterminated by the Ming Dynasty in the 1600s, leaving little knowledge of their culture or language behind.
Hanging Coffins (悬棺)
A burial custom of the Bo people in which wooden coffins were suspended from sheer cliff sides by still inconclusive methods.
Small town in southern Sichuan province where the largest concentrations of Bo hanging coffins are located.
The ruling dynasty of China from 1368-1644 CE. Ming doctrine was characterized by isolationist policies and focus on internal matters and expansion.
Province in southwestern China made up of mountains, river valleys, and sections of the Tibetan Plateau.
xiānghuǒ qián (香火钱)
Literally “incense money” whereby monetary offerings are made at temples and other sacred sites in order to gain supernatural blessings from ancestors or the Buddha.
A large district located in southern Sichuan province.
Province in southwestern China consisting of many ethnic minorities, with landscapes ranging from jungles to snow-capped mountains.
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