Mysterious sky cemeteries: The Chinese way of burial raises questions

Hanging coffins in various parts of the world are almost as mysterious as the Egyptian pyramids.
11.May 2021
 
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Different nations, landscapes, cultures, religions - all this means various customs, traditions and rituals, often completely unique and incomprehensible to others. Weddings, welcoming babies into the world, funerals as well as methods of putting bodies to eternal rest vary. If we believe in eternal rest, that is. A very uncommon method of burial are coffins hung on rocks, specific to southwestern China and attributed to people from the now-extinct Bo tribe.

One can travel for many purposes - for fun, for sports, to the seaside, to the mountains or perhaps for our hobby. And burial methods in different countries can also be a hobby. An old saying goes "different tribes, different laws", and that's true even in this case. Some people might find interest in burials morbid, but there's no need to see it that way. Burying our dead has a tradition, is associated with many customs and rituals and allows us to uncover some of the secrets of a foreign culture. Should wanderlust and passion take you to China, don't miss the hanging coffins suspended high on the rock overhangs. Sometimes they are so high that you can barely see them from the ground. And that may have been their purpose - to place man closer to heaven, closer to another world.

Hanging coffins are found throughout central China, mostly in remote valleys south of the mighty Yangtze River, which flows from the Himalayan foothills to the east coast of China. Sometimes they are placed in a way that makes it impossible for passers-by to notice them - they are arranged in crevices in the cliffs, balanced on wooden stakes acting as consoles, placed in rectangular spaces carved into the rock wall or stacked high in caves.

Závěsné rakve jsou vyrobené z dlabaného masivního dřeva. Detail rakve.
Závěsné rakve jsou vyrobené z dlabaného masivního dřeva. Detail rakve. • Source: Profimedia

They make up various formations from 30 to 90 meters high and are made of roughly carved wooden planks, with a bone or skull protruding here and there, and their surroundings are literally strewn with remnants of clothing, shards of ceramics, including bronze wine or food containers. Weapons such as a bronze spear or a ge (an ancient Chinese weapon with a long handle and a horizontal blade), bamboo bows, arrows and arrow cases, and, of course, bone fragments were discovered, too.

Are these funeral rituals? Or where did the coffins come from?

Wong's mission in life

Wong How Man, a Hong Kong explorer, has been asking this question for over 30 years. That was when his obsession with these coffins in cemeteries all over China began, and since then he has been trying to find out more about this unusual funeral custom. He has been researching, travelling, publishing, reading and studying. However, despite having published his first study as early as 1991, he still hasn't found a clear explanation. Instead, he keeps finding more and more questions.

"At first I was only trying to find out how the hell the coffins got there, but then I couldn't stop thinking about the whys," he says. "And there are so many theories! The oldest ones are said to be found in the eastern province of Fuijan, which was first mentioned 3,000 years ago."

Závěsné hrobky na Filipínách
Závěsné hrobky na Filipínách • Source: Profimedia

Ancient sources say that the higher the coffins were placed, the more the survivors were trying to show the piety of the deceased. Other theories, however, suggest that placing the deceased that high prevented animals from poaching their bodies and kept the land free for farmers.

Each new discovery brings more questions

In 2015, the People's Daily reported that a total of 131 hanging coffins had been discovered in the central province of Hubei. They were located in artificial caves in a cliff 50 meters wide and 100 meters high.

"Experts have yet to find out how the elderly managed to transport coffins, bodies and funerary items, all of which weighed hundreds of kilograms, to the cliff caves,"

says the report.

Luxusní byt na prodej - Praha 2 - Vinohrady
Luxusní byt na prodej - Praha 2 - Vinohrady, Praha 2

In 2000, Wong founded the non-profit Chinese Research and Development Society (CERS), and in the same year, he managed to find another high-rise cemetery, this time in northern Yunnan, near the place where he had seen hanging coffins for the first time. Finally, he could properly research and document the content.

But even this first-hand discovery eventually raised only further questions. For example, why did many of the coffins contain the remains of several bodies? Or why were the coffins made of solid wood filled with sand, which made them unreasonably heavy? It must have been obvious they would fall down sooner or later…

Závěsné hroby v provincii Kuej-čou v Číně, duben 2021
Závěsné hroby v provincii Kuej-čou v Číně, duben 2021 • Source: Profimedia

The Bo tribe - closer to nature and heaven

Wong How Man eventually concluded that the ritual belonged to the Bo tribe, a rebellious minority tribe that inhabited the border between present-day southern Sichuan and the northwestern provinces of Yunnan.

Although no one has yet discovered the true meaning of this burial method, experts are of the opinion that the people of Bo believed that hanging the coffin on a cliff made it easier for the deceased to reach heaven. In ancient times, people believed in nature and thought that it was inhabited by friendly spirits. They believed in rocks, mountains and water. This theory is also supported by Guo Jing from the Yunnan Provincial Museum.

"People believed that high-altitude cliffs or natural formations were closer to the sky. I think that the people of Bo were followers of this theory."

Although the tribe itself disappeared, it apparently assimilated into other local minority groups, and might still exist in this form - along with it its rituals.

The results of Wong's research formed the basis of a 2003 Discovery Channel documentary attempting to reconstruct the way the coffins had been transported across the cliff. While some believe they had been deposed from above, others think they had been lifted using scaffoldins.

Jedna z visících hrobek lidí Ku v Bainitangu, prefektura Wenshan, provincie Yunnan, Čína.
Jedna z visících hrobek lidí Ku v Bainitangu, prefektura Wenshan, provincie Yunnan, Čína. • Source: Foto: Pratyeka / Creative Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0

Were the coffins lowered on ropes? Maybe…

Cui Chen, the curator of the Yibin Museum, explains three different ways in which the coffins might have been placed on the cliffs.

"One option is the use of earth ramps, but experts reject this solution because of the incredible effort it requires, making it difficult to implement the method in an under-populated area. The second alternative is a wooden scaffolding supported on stilts in the rock, but so far we haven't managed to find a single stilt. The third option is to lower the coffins on ropes from above, which seems to us the most acceptable so far."

And it's not just the tremendous effort that was put into every funeral that fascinates us today. It is also the fact that the custom of hanging coffins is at odds with the underground burial and cremation that most modern societies, including China, normally practice.

Rakve v pohřební jeskyni Lumiang, Sagada, Luzon, Filipíny
Rakve v pohřební jeskyni Lumiang, Sagada, Luzon, Filipíny • Source: Profimedia

Modern disrespect for the dead

In any case, some of the hanging cemeteries have turned into tourist attractions, where respect for the dead is not always the priority. Many of them have been looted and destroyed. Tourists leave banknotes here, they aren't ashamed to place a cigarette in one of their skulls as a lame joke. There are also places where fake hanging coffins appeared, built by local tourist companies in an attempt to attract more visitors.

One of the most famous Sichuan burial grounds has been looted despite the fact that the coffins were located 90 meters above the ground and the place was protected as a national cultural monument.

"The criminals' loot allegedly included ancient swords and other valuables. Going back 20, 30 years, yes, China had other priorities and limited funding. Today's China, on the other hand, is so influential that it really should defend the protection of its traditions. It is about the integrity of culture and cultural identity,"

says Wong, adding:

"Archeology in China is a well-funded and prestigious field, but the study of hanging coffins seems to be neglected."

Strážce rakví Liu Chaoxian dohlíží na 567 rakví zesnulých členů klanu ve vesnici Qibo, okres Pingba, město Anshun, provincie Kuej-čou v Číně, 27. srpna 2019.
Strážce rakví Liu Chaoxian dohlíží na 567 rakví zesnulých členů klanu ve vesnici Qibo, okres Pingba, město Anshun, provincie Kuej-čou v Číně, 27. srpna 2019. • Source: Profimedia

What's standing in the way?

Anke Hein, an archaeologist at Oxford University who studied burial customs in western China, says that this type of burial has been practised at different times, in different geographical areas, and even falls into different disciplines - archaeology and anthropology.

"I'm sure if anyone really wanted to find out the truth, they could,"

says Hein.

"But you would need to assure the cooperation of various provinces and local governments, which is difficult and requires a lot of energy."

Therefore, to this day, we can only speculate about these hanging cemeteries.

Luxusní prvorepubliková vila na prodej v Praze
Luxusní prvorepubliková vila na prodej v Praze,

However, open-air funerals are still being carried out on the Chinese border; Tibetans and Mongols practice burials in the sky, during which bodies are dissected and offered to vultures or other animals. Reef burials are still a custom in Sagada in the Philippines and have been recorded in northern Thailand and the Pacific.

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