The Mystery of China’s Hanging Coffins

Riding the tumult of the river between the valleys, you may allow your eyes to follow the silent grandeur of the cliffs that ascend hundreds of feet. Here overlooking the Three Gorges River rest the people of an ancient Chinese civilization. Suspended high among the cliffs are cryptic reminders of a mysterious culture that has disappeared from the face of the Earth.

The people of the Ba left behind little written evidence of their culture, leaving archaeologists to slowly piece their story together. The bodies secured within the coffins constructed totally of wood are believed to be the original workers and engineers of China’s infamous Silk Road. The Ba civilization survived for about 3,000 years, with the last descendant passing away over 400 years ago.

The unusual tribute to the dead via hanging the coffins – or more specifically, suspending them in the sides of cliffs atop driven posts – is one of the more common burial rituals in southwest China. Although the process through which the heavy relics were placed so high is shrouded in mystery, there have been many theories. One is perhaps a pulley; the other, possibly waiting for the river to rise high enough; and still, there are speculations by the superstitious who think only by some celestial phenomenon was all this possible.

There are other locations associated with this marvel scattered in remote locations in China, and some are even found in the Philippines. However, the sands of time are against the hanging coffins in the Three Gorges River. Currently there is a diligent conservation effort in effect in Gongxian County to acquire the some 100 coffins. 280 coffins were originally documented. Slowly the last traces of the Ba legacy are falling prey to the weathering of the limestone, and plunging hundreds of feet below to a second death.

These ancient relics continue to baffle us generations later. They fascinate us into silence, capture our imaginations and thoughts, and instantly demand respect for those who have passed through this Earth. Perhaps it’s the unorthodox height at which the bodies rest; maybe it’s even just the sense of immortality these displays provide that captivates us. Whatever it may be, the whispers of the Ba people will hopefully continue to have the same effect, for many hundreds of years more after their mysterious disappearance.