Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Hanging Coffins of the Bo People Volume 44 Number 5, September/October 1991
by Wong Hong Man

Their heavy wooden coffins extend from the rock face almost 300 feet straight up. Some rest on wooden posts that jut out from the cliffside, others lie in niches cut into the rock or in natural recesses where murals painted in cinnabar red depict scenes from the lives of these curious people, known as the Bo.

The Bo, who flourished for some 400 years in the Hemp Pond Valley in Southwest China's Gongxian County, are known in local annals as Ya Ze--"Sons of the Cliffs." They were also called Tu Tian, "Subjugators of the Sky," because it was apparently their perverse nature to "struggle against heaven." In the summer when it was hot, they wore leather coats and warmed themselves by the fire; in the winter, they wore a single sweat garment and carried big fans in their hands. Why the Bo lived this way and interred their dead on the sides of cliffs remain a mystery; only intermittent mention of them exists in Chinese history, and they eventually disappeared without a trace.

* See also "The Hanging Coffins of the Bo People," a poem inspired by this article.

Wong Hong Man is president of the China Exploration and Research Society and a Research Fellow at the Geographic Institute of Yunnan.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America