Hanging Coffins

The Three Gorges region of the Yangtze River not only impresses people with exceptional scenery and landscapes but also captivates them with many unusual phenomena. The hanging coffins are one example. The term hanging coffin refers to a coffin that is suspended in a natural or man-made cave high up in the cliffs.

According to statistics, these mysterious coffins are mostly found in the Three Little Gorges area along the Daning River. Several sites have also been found in the Three Gorges region. An estimated three hundred coffins in about seven locations have been investigated. The coffins are made of wood, which kept the rainwater out and protected the coffin contents from the sun.  Relics that have been excavated from the coffins include pottery, bronze vessels, enginery, cloth, and other items mostly from the ancient Ba Kingdom. A bow and arrow made of bamboo was adorned with lacquer designs, which aroused the interests of archeologists greatly.

The coffins in the caves, most of which date from the Spring and Autumn Period to the Warring States Period (770 BC-221 BC), were placed high above the water, particularly the ones found along the Daning River, with the lowest distance being 30 meters (98 feet) and the highest 500 meters (1,640 feet). With no support and backstop in the surrounding area, how the heavy coffins were placed in such a high place still remains a mystery. However, experts have speculated several feasible means by which ancient people did the great work. One theory is that the coffins were lowered down from the top of the mountain by ropes.

It was a common funeral custom in ancient times for Yangtze River people to hang coffins on the cliffs. But the intention remains controversial. One legend among the Ba people has it that a man called Wuxiang defeated his rival competing for the chief of the tribe by making a boat out of earth that would float in the water. In order to commemorate the great leader, his descendants made his coffin boat-shaped and placed it high up in the cliffs. Thus this practice was retained by later generations. But some hold that the ancient Pu nation in southern Sichuan Province is responsible for the coffins.

Today, most hanging coffins are kept in museums, but one coffin can still be seen in a cave when you cruising along the Shennong Stream on a pea-boat.
Further research into the enigmatic coffins has been carried out steadily; we are sure that exciting new results will enrich our knowledge of the Yangtze River civilizations greatly.

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