The custom of hanging coffins began with the Bo people of ancient China. They were an ethnic minority living close to the borders of today’s Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. Archaeological findings indicate that their culture was thriving at least 3,000 years ago.
Hanging coffins are either placed on mountain rock projections, on beams tilting outward from a mountain side or are put in caves at the face of cliffs. The Bo people believed that coffins set in high places are auspicious. The higher the coffin was placed, the more advantageous for the dead.
In 1941 close to 100 coffins were discovered in Gongxian County. These were hung on a cliff side supported by wooden stakes wedged into the rock. Others had been placed on rock outcrops.
Some people say the coffins were hung up with the aid from the immortals in the heavens while some believe the mystery may never be solved. There are a number of experts who believe that the coffins were lowered down with ropes from the top of the mountain. Other serious observers have concluded that the coffins were brought up the mountain via scaling ladders or that the wooden stakes wedged into the cliff face were used as steps for the climbers.
The coffins themselves were simple and undecorated, usually hewn from hardwood logs. The most recent hanging coffins were fashioned about 400 years ago in the middle and later periods of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), while many of the earliest ones date back 1,000 years to the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
The hanging coffin of the Bo people was the most widespread form of burial in ancient southwest China. However, the practice ended with their mysterious disappearance. The most likely explanation is that during the later years of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the imperial army cruelly oppressed the ethnic minority peoples of Southwestern and many of the Bo People were massacred. The Bo subsequently migrated to new locations, disguised their customs and traditions and gradually assimilated with other ethnic groups.