Friday, Mar 24, 2017, 12:08 PM CST – China

Outside In

Macabre Luobiao

THE HANGING DEAD

The hanging coffins of the Bo people, a Chinese ethnic minority thought to be long extinct, have puzzled historians for generations. Our writer travels to southwest Sichuan to investigate

Photo by CFP

Photo by CNS

Leaving the broad and muddy expanse of the Yangtze River behind us at Yibin, we drove into the hills along bumpy roads, marked by low houses and tiny fields of maize. Gongxian, passed en route, was a dump: gray, neglected and decayed. Stained tower blocks with empty windows stood here and there amidst the vegetation of a small river valley. Nothing went on here, and nobody stayed. A huge red poster of Mao Zedong could be glimpsed through the yawning doors of a derelict warehouse, a melancholy and forgotten ghost gazing out at his drab empire.

I had, in a sense, come in pursuit of ghosts.

Amidst the lush valleys and cool mists of China’s southwestern Sichuan province lies a great historical mystery: the hanging coffins of the Bo. Nailed into the cliffs high above farmland and river, hundreds of wooden coffins keep silent watch over the valleys below. They are the only relic of the Bo people, a tribe exterminated in the days of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). They lived in the mountains of the upper Yangtze, building fortresses high on nigh-impregnable hilltops. Their tombs remain remote today, and so it was that I made the long journey to Luobiao, a tiny settlement deep in the southwest corner of the province.

It is the foolish man who challenges the honor of a village. Wandering Luobiao with the confused visage of the traveler, I was invited over by some local men shouting good-naturedly to me as I passed, and was served an impromptu banquet. Keen to show hospitality to foreign guests, they treated me to a dinner of spiced duck webs; whole crayfish that crunched in the mouth; duck neck, red peppers, rice, and the shrink-wrapped morsels of jerky beloved of Chinese everywhere. In a town still part constructed of wattle-and-daub houses more redolent of Tudor England than the futuristic cityscapes I had come to associate with modern China, smartphone salesmen, urban clothes shops, and cranes mixed in with shirtless laborers pulling carts through the village center. Rain began pouring down, taking with it the electricity – plunged into near-darkness, our meal was lit only by the headlamp of a solitary parked motorbike. It was here I foolishly boasted to have once consumed an entire bottle of baijiu, Chinese liquor, in one sitting. “Our friend,” they said “really knows how to drink. How about we see who can drink more?” Too late I realized my error and, caught between the imperatives of basic dignity and “face,” chose the latter.

The challenge was issued and battle lines drawn. Laughing down their smartphones, my nemesis was summoned, his cool silence and wiry frame throwing sharp contrast on the cheerful and garrulous villagers with whom I had been passing the time. He stared at me in cool appraisal, the long unblinking look of the champion. Beer after beer was pressed into our hands, poured into bowls and emptied as, black eyed, he gazed at me over the rim of his cup. Piling into a car, we moved on to some kind of drinking den at the end of the village, dark upon the hillside. Amidst the dim light of lamps I could see huddled figures and bottles, the glow of cigarettes and the sound of guttural laughter.

Cheered in by the room, we ordered baijiu, 65 percent proof. I drank forgetting that such contests are marathons not sprints; it coursed burning through my body with each unwise gulp. We ate spicy tofu and pigs’ trotters, and debated about the Japanese. The night grew hazier and fell into oblivion as victory and memory slipped from my grasp.

I awoke full of that peculiar euphoric pain that is the signature of a night spent pickled in baijiu. The bright light of day streamed through my window, as from the street below came the sound of footsteps, wheels, and the animals of the field beyond. It was apparent I had failed to make it for the dawn viewing of the hanging coffins. Bleary-eyed I rolled from bed into the morning and, breathing fumes no less toxic than those coming from the waiting scooters, drove out of the village.

Shimmering in the heat of the summer, the coffins lay high above the small valley scene of low farm houses, high midsummer maize, rice paddies, fish ponds and oxen. A small walkway up a cliff-face leads viewers to where the greatest concentration sits thick, weathered, and silent.

We passed low houses, peasants carrying water on their backs; an old watchtower, much overgrown, and a tiny Daoist temple, doors closed. Everywhere along the sheer face of the valley wall could be seen square indentations once holding thick wooden stakes supporting the coffins of the dead – here and there, high upon some more sheltered indentation in the rock, may still be glimpsed the brown and weathered outline of their tombs.

The mind’s eye struggles to imagine the scene such as once it stood – hundreds, thousands of black coffins hanging high above the farmland carrying their silent loads, the cliffs decorated with frescoes. Perhaps such disposal of the dead reinforced the idea of the continuance of the community after death – the dead remained with them, for they could always be seen every time one raised a head, soaked in sweat, from the fields below.

Little now is known of the Bo, who they were, or how they lived. It is thought that they buried their dead according to status – the greater the individual, the higher his tomb. Historians disagree on the manner of their resting. Were the coffins lowered down from the cliffs, reached via bamboo scaffolds, or carried up along walkways of wood skewered into the rock? It is believed by some that they stored their dead high upon the rock that their souls might be closer to heaven, or indeed to provide a more prosaic protection from animals and enemies. Remaining legends are unclear. It is said the last leader of the Bo, his people massacred at a festival by Ming troops, took two of his remaining followers and flew off his broken mountain fort, a legend of survival suggesting the Bo, though destroyed, were not fully wiped out and live scattered and assimilated amongst the Han.

With no more coffins to see, my guide brought me for lunch at his house. Corn lay drying on the concrete of the front yard. His wife cooked us lunch of steamed dumplings, smoked ham, green peppers, lettuce, rice and tea, as his mother sat watching. “What are the house prices per square meter in London?’’ they asked. ‘’Is it true that British children have to leave home and work from the age of 10?’’ The locals, it would seem, have their own strange questions about faraway lands.

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