Hanging Coffins in China along the Yangtze River

Written by Sally Guo Updated Sep. 29, 2021

The hanging coffins along the Yangtze River are unsolved mysteries. They are believed to display profound cultural and historical meaning and the unique entombment custom of ancient nationalities in the Three Gorges area.

In the steep cliffs, above the turbulent flows, are lots of caves dating from the age of troglodytism. Ancient human relics conceal secret entrances to the caves. An old poem says: “Countless famous mountains are in Yiling, countless famous caves are in these mountains.” Among these caves “Golden Cave” is very famous and mysterious.

Who Placed the Coffins the Cliff?

In 1958, Yang Wenping, a farmer of White Dragon Village on Mount Baiyan, adventurously entered a cave using a coarse rope and claw hook and retrieved a bronze willowherb-shaped sword of the ancient tribe of Ba (Ba and Shu were the old names for the two parts of Sichuan province: Ba was in the east; Shu was in the west.

In modern times, “Bashu Culture” is used to describe the culture of Sichuan). In 1996, an expedition made up of members from China, England and Eire entered the Golden Cave. They only found bones of the dead, scattered wood flour, and obscure characters and pictures there. Who left these? When did they leave these? Lots of questions are still mysteries. Among all of these mysteries, the cliff coffins in the caves are the most famous.

Are There Any Treasures in the Cliff Coffins?

There is an old saying: “There are countless treasures in the cliff coffins in the Three Gorges, which can not be obtained, even by risking your life”. Are there treasures in the coffins?  Today, some of the secrets have been unveiled! 

In the year 1971, a bow-backed person, a lame man, and a monk ventured into Qutang Gorge (one of the Three Gorges) and got down a coffin from a cliff. There was not any gold or silver in it, only some bronzeware and pottery of the ancient imperial Ba tribe were found. During “China’s ten-year cultural catastrophe” (1966-76), people destroyed a cliff coffin, besides skeletons. Only tea leaves and books were left. After that, some medicines and other artifacts were found in other coffins.

Hanging Coffins
hanging coffin on the cliff

During the 1950s and 1960s, in the coffins at Daxi in the county of Wushan, on the southern bank of the Yangtze at the entrance to Qutang Gorge, people found skeletons with zaxes, or stone hoes, under their heads, or wearing jade rings, earbobs, mussel rings and lots of other trinkets. What was more interesting was, from the mortuary objects, the vocation of the people these skeletons belonged to could be known. For example, it was not difficult to tell that the skeleton with fishes under its head, in its hand, and beside it was a fisherman. Other mortuary objects were fishing nets, fishhooks, and so on. Ancient people believed that there was another world of dead men, where they could continue their vocations, so they were buried with their career-related tools.

What Do the Coffins Look Like?

In 1979, Professor Lin Xiang, from the History Department of Sichuan University, took a cliff coffin down from Jingzhuba Cliff on the upper Da’ning River.

According to analysis, the wooden hanging coffin had a 2000-year history and no decomposition. The coffin was 2.1 meters (7 feet) long, made up of smooth, rainproof, and rot-resistant Nan mu wood (very expensive wood). The ancient people split the wood into two parts and hollowed them. The connection between the coffin bottom and the coffin cover is a crescent shape with a snap fastening and no hinges.

The gradient of the cave was 20°. The location of the coffin was a “place where no mangoes”, with little sunshine (2 hours per day), making it airy, rainproof, and dry, and that is why the coffin has been completed preserved. There were two skeletons in the coffin: one was a boy of age 13 or 14, the other was a girl’s. An imprint of a blunt tool was shown at the back of the girl’s head, which meant the girl was buried with the dead—the rich boy. Other entombment objects were a cupreous belt hook, cupreous bangles, and the like. (Now, these objects are exhibited in the cultural relics exhibition center in the town of Wushan, at the beginning of Wu Gorge, about 140 km (87 mi) upriver from Yichang.)

How Did People Hang the Coffins?

How did people place the coffins on the cliffs? According to the textual research, there are three probable methods:

The first is after someone died the descendants would chisel caves out of the cliffs for placing the coffins. The coffins were then let down by a rope from the top of the mountains. The higher the coffins were put, the more filial the descendants were.

The second way is, people, cut tunnels and caves in the cliffs and then destroyed the tunnels to avoid robbing the graves.

The third suggestion is, the coffins were lifted using block and tackle. Of course, the lifting equipment was removed after use.

History of China Hanging Coffins

The earliest record of cliff coffins in the Three Gorges was found in ancient books and folk legends. According to the scholars, the words “Cliff Coffin” came from the book “The Royalty Peaceful Encyclopedia”, dating from the Eastern Jin Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-589), when people considered the cliff coffins as “homes”.

Since the Tang Dynasty (618-907), people gradually found that they were coffins. In the book “Backup Information and Knowledge”, the author Shao Bowen of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) described that “There are coffins in caves which were put at a height where even birds and monkeys have not touched. The coffins are of different sizes, called ‘tombs of celestial beings’ by local people.” There were also related records in some poems and historical materials, which recorded the process of thought about the cliff coffins.

Lots of the scenic spots’ names are related to the cliff coffins, like “Bellows Gorge”, “Dragon Boat Pier” and “Box Rock”. The shapes of the local coffins, people likened to bellows, boats, boxes, and so on.

According to historical records, the earliest coffin had a 1500-year history. Because of the low technology level in ancient times, people considered the mystery of coffins for a long time. During that time, lots of folk legends came about.

In the year 1948, the famous ethnologist Rui Yifu initially coined the words “Cliff Coffin Burying Custom”. After that, the words were accepted and used more and more by scholars. Mr. Chen Mingfang, who continued to research cave burying, later defined the Cliff Coffin Burying Custom: “ ‘Cliff Coffin Burying’ is a burying custom of placing coffins with skeletons and mortuary objects on cliffs facing the waters.”

Ethnic Origin of the Cliff Coffins

The ethnic origins of the cliff coffins have a common ancestry. From the dynasties of Shang (1600-1046 BC) and Zhou (1045-256 BC), various nationalities settled in the Three Gorges area. In the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), the main nationalities there were Ba and Chu. According to oracle bone inscriptions, Ba Fang was a powerful kingdom. The book “Maps of Chinese History” described the location of the Ba Fang: the Ba Fang kingdom was located between Han River and Ba River, south of the kingdom Chu and Deng. According to investigations, the Ba nationality was one of the eight tribes which participated in the alliance against the Shang Kingdom. In the book “Annotations of Shuijingzhu” (Shuijingzhu was an important historical geography book ), the author Yang Shoujing considers “Ba” the generic term for the nationalities of Peng, Zongbei, Bandunmanyi, Yuegourenyi, Langzhongyi, and Baihuyi. An ancient book, “Annotations of Ba”, said, “their territory extended to the stomach of the fish”. The “stomach of the fish” stood for the area of the Three Gorges in Chongqing. Some Ba-type willow-leaf-shaped swords were found in the Three Gorges, tallying with the recorded time and location of the Ba nationality. So the makers of the cliff coffins were the people of Ba nationality.

Where Hanging Coffins can find in China

Most of the cliff coffins are distributed in the south of China, in the provinces of Fujian, Jiangxi, Zhejiang, Hubei, Hu’an, Sichuan, Chongqing, Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi, and Taiwan. The Three Gorges area is a unique zone for cliff coffins, with the most precious cultural significance. The course of the Yangtze River is the center of distribution for the coffins. The main river, together with its tributaries, makes up the distribution network. Their cultural connotations and ethnic characteristics have obvious connections and universalities with other cliff coffins of South China. 

Cliff Coffins on the Yangtze River in the Three Gorges

The length of the Three Gorges is 192 km, from the beginning of Qutang Gorge to the end of Xiling Gorge, where more than 10 cliff coffins have been found, for example:

The Coffin at Tactics Book Gorge

There are some records in historical books and local recordings, without details of the mortuary objects.

The Coffin of Fenbi Cave

The cave is located on the southern bank of Kuimen, which is famous for its stone sculptures, 50 meters above the water surface.

The Coffin of Golden Cave

Golden Cave is a natural cave on a cliff. In 1958, a farmer got a bronze sword from this cave. In 1966 an expedition found some skeletons in this cave.

The Coffin of the Groove

The Groove is a cave located on a cliff on the southern bank of Qutang Gorge, 70 meters above the water surface. There is a coffin in it, with piles of timber and square holes on the side of it.

The Bellows Coffin

There is a coffin in Bellows Gorge, which joins the Yangtze at the northern bank of Qutang Gorge, 100 meters from the top of the cliff and 70 meters above the water surface. There are three big Chinese characters “Feng Xiang Xia” ('Bellows Gorge') at the vertical rock crack. In the year 1971, three farmers climbed into the cave to hunt for treasure and found 12 coffins on timber columns. They destroyed 8 of them and stole a bronze sword, a cupreous ax, some pearl trinkets, and an exquisite cupreous male shoe with carved patterns.

The Armor Cave Coffin

According to the ancient book “General Introduction to Kuizhou” this cave was the place where the famous female general Mu Guiying of the Song Dynasty hid her armor. It is just a folk legend. Armor Cave is located 100 meters above the water surface. Professor Tong Enzheng wrote an article recording the cultural relics in the cave. In the year 1958, an old man climbed into the cave and found three coffins. The cultural relics he retrieved have been preserved in the cultural relics exhibition center in the city of Baidicheng.

Iron Coffin Gorge  

Iron Coffin Gorge is located in Nanmuyuan on the southern bank of Xiling Gorge. Iron Coffin Gorge is 500 meters long, with a group of natural caves located there, dozens of meters above the water surface. Since many years have passed, all the coffins here look as black as iron. Hence the name “Iron Coffin Gorge”.

The Coffin of Tactics Book and Sword GorgeThis gorge is located north of Zigui Town in Xiling Gorge. After navigating Xiangxi River by boat, there is an outstanding stone standing on the cliff, like a sword. There is a natural cave further downstream, 200 meters above the water surface. Some paper-like artifacts were found several years ago. As the story goes, it was a book of tactics left by the famous militarist Zhu Geliang in the dynasty of the Three Kingdoms (220­-280). In the year 1955, while searching for herbal medicine getting, several old men climbed into the cave and found two coffins and the “book of tactics”.

Coffins along the tributaries of the Yangtze flowing into the Three Gorges

On both sides of branch rivers, which flow into the Yangtze River in the Three Gorges, there are also cliff coffins halfway up the cliffs:

The Caotanghe Cliff Coffin in Fengjie

The Sanjiayan cliff coffin was the main treasure in the cave. Now there are only wooden remains.

The Staggered Gorge at Wu Mountain

There are two cliff coffin groups: Guanmuxian and Tianzimiao. More than 10 coffins were found in the two cliff coffin groups in total. 4 of them have been preserved.

The Cliff Coffin Group on Wu Mountain beside Daning River

There are five coffin locations: Longmen Gorge (Iron Coffin Gorge as mentioned before), Bawu Gorge, Flying Cloud Cave in Dicui Gorge, and the Water Entrance of Dachang. Most of them are natural caves, with 1 or 2 coffins in each. The height range of the coffin locations is from 40 meters to 200 meters above the water surface. They form an extremely unique landscape in the  Lesser Three Gorges.

The Cliff Coffin Groups in the Town of Wuxi on Da’ning River

There are more than ten coffin groups, located at Decomposing Boats Bay, Moon Cave, Cat Rock, Coffin Rock, Yellow Rock Cave, Square Cave, Southern Gate Bay, Phoenix Mountain, the Nine Floors, etc. This is a notable area for cliff coffins. 30 meters north of the town of Wuxi, at the confluence of Daning River and Dongxi River, is the Jingzhuba Cliff coffin group, containing 25 coffins. In the year 1979, some students and teachers from the Archaeology Department of Sichuan University climbed the cliff for investigations. They opened coffin No. 18 and found two skeletons (a boy and a girl) and three items of bronzeware in it.

The Cliff Coffin Group in the Town of Wuxi beside Dragon Boat River

Since there is a cliff coffin resembling a wooden boat, the river was named Dragon Boat River. More than 10 coffins are there, but most of them have been destroyed. Cliff coffins were also found above Luoping River, 5 km from Dragon Boat River.

The Coffin Group Beside Jiuwan Stream in the Town of ZiguiJiuwan Stream is south of Xiling Gorge. As the story goes, the famous poet Quyuan planted irises and orchids called “Jiuwan” here, hence the name Jiuwan Stream. There is a natural transverse crack between the reddish-brown cliffs, 50 meters above the water surface. Seven coffins were put in the crack, all of which have been destroyed by tomb raiders.

The Cliff Coffin Group Along the branches of Qinggan River in the Town of Zigui

On a cliff, which is 120 meters long and 100 meters high,  in Moping Village on the southern bank of Xiling Gorge, there are 131 coffins in the caves and rock cracks. A bundle of rope can also be seen through a telescope. This is the largest cliff coffin group founded to date, which has great value for research. Although the caves have not been climbed into, some scholars consider that the bundle of rope in the cave could probably give us the answer to how the coffins were placed.

The Cliff Coffin Group Along Huangbai River in the Yiling Area

This coffin group is on the cliffs on both sides of Huangbai River, which is 20 km from Xiling Gorge. There is a natural cave called Coffin Rock 100 meters above the water surface, with 30 coffins in it. In the center of the cave, there is a bigger coffin, which is 2 meters long and 1 meter high. The coffin was made from a single piece of whole hardwood. In its history, this coffin group was destroyed by tomb raiders again and again. In the period 1958 to 1979, tomb raiders destroyed 20 coffins in total.

There is another cave facing Coffin Rock called Dragon Lord Cave, containing 6 coffins.

From the geographic distribution of the cliff coffins, there is an obvious conclusion: there are more cliff coffins along the branch rivers of the Yangtze River than the main river. This is related to the distribution of ancient nationalities and tribes, reflecting where they lived. The Three Gorges have less flat ground for residence and farming, while the branch rivers have more flat ground with fertile soil. Access was also more convenient, so most of the ancient villages were distributed in the branch river areas. Discovering the geographic distribution of ancient tribes will aid research into the cliff coffin’s ethnic origin and cultural significance.

Cliff Coffin Burying Customs in the Three Gorges

Compared with cliff coffins in the south of China, the cliff coffins in the Three Gorges have some similar characteristics and also some unique features.

Most of the cliff coffins were put in natural caves. Since the geology is limestone, erosion has produced karst landforms. Sheer peaks, strange rock formations, solution cavities, and caves are all present there. Most of the coffins are located in natural caves, not in artificial ones, reflecting the primitive simplicity of the Neolithic Period.

Most of the coffins are made of single pieces of wood. Since there were abundant timber resources, people could use local materials conveniently. The simple and coarse style reflects the low skill level in ancient times.

Methods of placing the coffins were undoubtedly adjusted to suit local conditions.

How the coffins were put in the cliffs has been a brainteaser to scholars for years. There are lots of theories, like the cumuli theory, the scaling ladder theory, the landform change theory, the plank road theory, and the block and tackle theory.

According to the information we have now, scholar Liu Buxiu considers that the rope theory is probably right. The bundle of rope in Coffin Cave in the county of Zigui is evidence for the rope theory. Another evidence is, ropes are still the villagers’ main tools for collecting herbal medicine and wood and road building.

Some other scholars support the theory of plank roads being built along the cliffs. They consider the Ladder of Mengliang as evidence (there are 65 sections left).

But even using a plank road, the rope was also needed for support. So rope is the key factor to revealing the secret.

Cultural Signification of the Cliff Coffins

Since the initial discovery of the mysterious cliff coffins in China 1000 years ago, lots of researchers have been exploring their mysteries. Of course, the unique burial custom was the outcome of the special ideology and religions and the unique historical conditions. According to research, this burial custom was a reflection of some ethnic religions, which had a common ancestry with the age of troglodytism and Neolithic Period. As to the details of the forming of the custom, there are lots of different ideas and guesses. Here are the main theories:

Ancestor Worship 

This theory is that people put the skeletons of their parents and ancestors on a high cliff facing the water to let their descendants look up to them with reverence, and then the ancestors would bless their descendents' lives and make them thriving and prosperous.

Divine Intervention 

People in ancient times called their bodies “forms”. They believed spirits attached to the “forms”. Some scholars think that the coffins are like boats, carrying the spirits attached to the forms of paradise. In the old poetry anthology “Chuci”, the sentence “transferring the spirits of the dead” reflected the spirit theory and ancient ethnic customs in the Three Gorges.

Protection by Deities

Ancient people believed that the high mountains and cliffs were the nearest places to paradise. So they called the caves “deities’ homes”. People buried the ancestors on the cliffs to protect them from evil.

Returning Home

People then thought that human beings came from the water, mountains and caves, so they needed to return there. During the age of troglodytism, humans hunted in the forests and fished in the water, so they had a special connection with nature. Placing their ancestors’ coffins on cliffs above the water could be seen as sending them back to nature. There was a sentence in the famous poem “Flower Burying”: “the inner being came from cleanness and would return to the cleanness”, which is an example of the returning to nature theory.

The four theories above are persuasive and popular among scholars. Besides, there are also some other theories called “the Protection of Corpses Theory” and “the Smallpox Contagion Controlling”, which are less impressive theories, and not very persuasive.

In summary, the cliff coffins have unique cultural values and give an insight into early customs and religions in the Three Gorges.

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