Most ancient civilizations buried their dead under the ground, a few burned them on pyres. But there are some that placed bodies of the dead in coffins and hung the coffins on a precipice.
Examples of the latter can be found in many locations throughout China. Some of those are placed on wooden beams projecting out from rock, others are on the rocks themselves. Still others are merely placed in caves high up a cliff face. Some were even suspended on wooden stakes above the ground or stuck into the cliff face.
Coffins have been found from 18 counties in various provinces, some containing hundreds of samples. The age of some preserved artifacts ranges over 13 centuries from the Jin Dynasty (265AD-420AD) to the Ming Dynasty (1368AD-1644AD). But the practice dates much further back. Archaeologists have found hanging coffins in Wuyi Mountain from as far back as the Zhou Dynasty (1027BC-777BC).
One of the most well-known examples are the Ba Hanging Coffins of the Three Gorges. Some of these are – or soon will be – lost forever as the waters of the river rise. That change was brought about by the Three Gorges River dam project which is flooding sections that were previously high above the river’s surface.
Most of these contain the remains of Ba peoples, an ancient ethnic Chinese group centered around what is now Yibin City. When buried, the wooden coffin – many containing weapons, food containers and decorated with Tiger carvings – would be placed high up the cliff face. These people are believed to be among the original engineers and workers of China’s famed Silk Road.
Preserved examples of the coffins can be found in various museums around the country. Dozens are housed in the Yibin Museum in Gong Xian. Others can be seen in Wuyi in the Fujian Province. Still more are stored in Yingtan City in Jiang Xi. And, for a while, viewing the Ba Hanging Coffins of the Three Gorges is possible as part of one of the many tours down the river.
The Ba culture survived for over 3,000 years but the last known descendant is believed to have died out as recently as 400 years ago though the funeral practice ended centuries earlier. The earliest known example of their funeral practices is believed to be one dating 2,500 years ago found at Three Gorges.
Why this ancient people began this practice, or what significance it may have had for them, is not known. Some believe that suspending the body high above the ground conferred honor. It isn’t even known with certainty how they achieved some of the engineering feats involved in placing coffins so far up a cliff, distant from the top of the mountain.
But whatever the answers to these questions are, the Ba Hanging Coffins continue to fascinate visitors to China generation after generation. Come find out why.