PRESERVING THE HANGING COFFINS OF THE BO PEOPLE

The Bo People were a minority tribe that once inhabited the border between today’s southern Sichuan and northwestern Yunnan province. The Bo disappeared during the latter part of the Ming Dynasty, persecuted to extinction through military expeditions mounted by the Central Court. Some remnants of the tribe are believed to have infiltrated into other local tribes and may have survived secretly until today.

How Man Wong first noticed the unique Hanging Coffins burial custom of the Bo in 1985 during his National Geographic Yangtze Expedition. These coffins perched on precipitous cliff-faces so fascinated him that he began amassing research material by previous scholars. Such studies started in the 1930s and continued into the 1980s. Much of the published work and internal research manuscripts are now within the CERS archive. CERS also visited the most famous of these Hanging Coffin sites in 1985, 1988 and several times in the 1990s.

New Discovery: In 1999, a CERS team visited several recorded sites in both Yunnan and Sichuan. Through talking to local villagers, a new site was discovered in northwestern Yunnan’s Weixin County. Liu Hong, a CERS caving team member with rappelling skills, lowered himself to make a close-up observations and study of a group of seven coffins on a cliff. It was revealed that one coffin on the top within a group of six coffins was in extremely perilous situation, as all three supporting wooden beams were badly rotten. Collapse of this coffin would bring down five other coffins situated directly below it. Intervention was called for immediately.

Conservation: In collaboration with the Yunnan Archaeological Institute, CERS led a team and returned to the site within a few months and organized a rescue effort. Scaffolding using local bamboo was built from the ground up to reach the coffins. Archaeologists assisted in opening the coffins and systematically recorded its contents, including sand filling the coffins to the rim. Several sets of human bones were recovered from within, and some burial objects. The wood from the coffins as well as the bones were later put through Carbon 14 dating. The bones were further examined by DNA tests at the Kunming Institute of Zoology. The coffins were treated with anti-termite material and the supporting beams were all replaced with similar local wood, after which the coffins were returned to their original positions and the scaffolding removed.

This entire process was documented by the Yunnan Television Channel and later broadcast in Chinese. A separate documentary film in English was later created by the Discovery Channel, with re-enactment at another nearby site, and made into an hour-long documentary film, which won the Best Documentary Award in Asia by the Television Asia Awards in 2004. This Discovery Channel film, Mysterious Hanging Coffins of the Bo People, remains the most comprehensive television feature on the Bo People and the Hanging Coffins.

One other significant achievement of this CERS project is that prior to our conservation and research effort, the earliest remaining coffins of the Bo people were dated to the late Ming Dynasty. Our scientific dating from C14 put our newly discovered site to the late Tang Dynasty, adding almost eight hundred years of age over other existing sites.