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The World | COLUMN ONE

China's Coffin Chaser

A 58-year-old mother of two has dedicated herself to studying an ancient people's unnervingly high burial grounds, whose fate, she says, hangs in the balance.

December 31, 2001|CHING-CHING NI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHENGDU, China — Looking up made her dizzy. Looking down could have killed her. So she closed her eyes, for as long as she could, trying to forget that she was stuck on the face of a 90-degree cliff with nothing to help her except the prickly shrub clutched in her fists.

Chen Mingfang was terrified, but it is her calling to get as close to death as possible.

The 5-foot-tall, 58-year-old mother of two is China's most unlikely Indiana Jones. She's not a natural daredevil--she's just keeping her word.

More than 20 years ago, an ailing archeologist was searching for a student to complete his lifelong mission: to write the definitive book on China's mysterious coffins in the sky. In an extraordinary burial practice, an ancient tribe placed caskets in the crevices of treacherous peaks so high that the resting places seem to defy gravity--and explanation.

The archeologist needed someone with more than an adventurer's spirit and an appetite for hardship. Because Chinese research scientists often work with minimal technical and financial support, he needed someone who cared more about the cause than personal rewards.

Professor Liang Zhaotao was sure that of his three graduate students, the two men couldn't handle the job.

"My son was only 1 year old when [Liang] chose me to finish his research," Chen said recently from her home in Chengdu. "I was shocked. I had no confidence in my ability."

But soon she was obsessed.

The coffins, the legacy of a now extinct tribe that roamed southern China's Yangtze River valley thousands of years ago, were designed to hover beyond the reach of the living.

Tucked away in stone crevices as high as 600 feet, the weathered wood caskets rest in a variety of formations, barely visible from the ground. They line up like railroad cars in the natural dents of the rock. They perch on dish-rack-like logs drilled into the sandstone. They rest like jewelry boxes in square caves carved out to resemble museum displays. They jut halfway into the air, like rolled-up magazines stuffed into mailboxes.

Most of them cluster together in a kind of high-rise cemetery. Others are scattered randomly. Sometimes only the drill marks are visible, the caskets long ago having plunged to earth. The highest resting spots usually have room for just one coffin, and only a helicopter, it seems, could get anyone near it.

How did they get there? No one today has the answer to the puzzle.

The caskets were discovered in the 1930s by a U.S. missionary after he saw some stone carvings uncovered by a Chinese construction crew. The carvings detailed the 2,000-year-old culture of an ethnic minority called the Bo. According to the story, these ancient people rebelled against the Ming Dynasty rulers about 500 years ago--and lost. In retaliation, the emperor ordered their annihilation. Those who survived stripped off their ethnic garb and changed their names.

The carvings described a place in Sichuan province where many of the Bo were killed. When the missionary went there, he found hundreds of the suspended coffins.

Speculation abounds. Did the coffins get there via stairways? Ropes? And why? For God? For familial piety? Or merely to save precious farmland?

"Our short-term goal is to save them and to keep them up there. The long-term goal is to answer the questions why and how they got up there," said Wong Howman, an explorer who runs the Hong Kong-based China Exploration and Research Society. The group has helped fortify and restore the coffins most susceptible to falling.

What is known is that the unusual burial practice is consistent with others once popular among China's borderland minorities.

Although modern societies practice underground burial and cremation, the Mongolians, for example, took an open-air approach. Their dead were left in the wild for the eagles and wolves to consume--the cleaner the carcass, the better the omen for the deceased's soul.

In Tibet, the dead were chopped up and tossed into the air to hungry birds, in the belief that reincarnation would be facilitated.

Australia's Aborigines practiced tree "burial," Chen said, in which the body was inserted into a tree's trunk or placed between its branches. The Egyptians, of course, are known for their mummies.

China's cliff burial fascinates scholars not only for its technical feat, but for what it suggests about human nature and attitudes toward death.

Perhaps the mountain people carried their dead to the perilous peaks and obscured the route home so the spirits could not follow them. That would be consistent with the practice of erecting tombstones and shrines, both to honor and pacify the dead and to make sure they keep a safe distance, Chen said.

Until recently, Chen's type of research would have been preposterous in a country that is still officially atheist. Chinese officials considered the ancient burial practice to be steeped in tradition and superstition, and for a time anthropology was viewed as a Western evil. Now, with official endorsement, it remains lonely work.

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