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Mysteries of hanging coffins, ghost city and lore on the Yangtze
By Chen Ye

One of the world's most famous riverboat rides is the voyage up or down the Yangtze River with chillingly steep cliffs along the Three Gorges area and the Three Gorges Dam, one of the man-made wonders of the modern world.

But putting aside the achievements of technology, the Yangtze River region is filled with mystery and the historic site of a magnificent ghost city, ancient hanging coffins (xuanguan) on sheer cliffs and the primitive forest where a creature like the Yeti was reportedly sighted.

Of a less-spooky nature are the famous Dazu Buddhist Grottoes outside Chongqing, featuring Chinese religious sculptures and carvings dating back as far as the 7th century.

And for those seeking unspoiled life along the river, there's Shennong Stream Scenic Zone where bargemen still haul barges in shallow water. Today the barges are empty except for tourists.

The Three Gorges area locate in the central section of the Yangtze River, stretching 193 kilometers starting west from Baidicheng town in Chongqing and concluding in Yichang.

The Yangtze River route contains around 85 noted historic sites, more than 20 of them ranked as national treasures.

Here are a few of the especially intriguing ones that visitors can explore as their cruise boats tie up along the river.

Fengdu Ghost City

The first stop downstream from Chongqing is what could be described as China's version of Dante's "Inferno," a model of hell and judgment dating back nearly 2,000 years ago on Mingshan Mountain.

Known as the Fengdu "Ghost City," the necropolis is based on a Taoist interpretation of hell, complete with excruciatingly vivid murals of torment and suffering. Structures include the Door to Hell, Bridge to Hell, Hall of Judgment and numerous temples, palaces and statuary representing ghosts, demons and souls of all kinds. A burial ground is nearby.

The statues, many of them chiseled in great detail, depict the Ghost Girl, Drunkard Ghost, Ghost of Lust, Yaksha or benevolent spirit, among many others. Landmarks include Nothing To Be Done Bridge, Ghost Torturing Pass, River of Blood and the Last Glance Home Tower.

Devils are said to live in Fengdu. The good go to heaven, and the damned go to Fengdu.

In constructing the Three Gorges Dam, the lower part of the ancient city was submerged, but the portion above the Door to Hell remains.

The city became known as the "Ghost City" during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD).

According to legend, this is the place where the souls of all the dead throughout history from around the world assemble and receive the final judgment. The souls go through temples and palaces, cross bridges and traverse the city; they undergo tests and suffer punishment depicted in colorful murals.

In this Chinese inferno, there are 18 levels of hell.

This ghost city is a virtual textbook of Chinese ghost culture. While it is entertaining today, it was once considered a place where people were educated and encouraged to do good deeds during this lifetime so that they would avoid the fires of hell after death.

Hanging cliff coffins

Along Qutang Gorge, one of the Three Gorges, travelers can see many hanging wooden on the sheer cliffs, some fixed on stakes, some in natural caves and others in man-made caves about 100 meters above the river.

Some were placed on out-croppings; some were placed on stakes driven into the rock. The funeral practice was observed by some ethnic minorities, notably the Ba people, who believed the height of the coffins protected earthly remains, provided tranquillity and heavenly blessings; the practice also saved remains from being taken by wild animals. They were placed in shaded areas and all faced the water. Many were "buried" with implements of their trade and other objects.

Records of hanging coffins date back almost 2,000 years.

There is an old saying that there are countless treasures in the cliff coffins in the Three Gorges area, but they cannot be obtained, even by risking one's life.

No fabulous treasure has been found, but skeletons, implements and artifacts have been discovered. Many coffins were carved from a single piece of hardwood, valuable and impermeable, that was sawed in half, hollowed out for a body and then hinged back together.

During the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) many hanging coffins were destroyed as evidence of backward religion.

In addition to Chongqing, hanging coffins can be seen in Fujian, Hubei, Yunnan and Jiangxi provinces.

It is not known for sure how the coffins were placed at such great heights. It has been suggested that they were probably lowered by ropes from the top of a cliff. Some speculate that shafts and tunnels were dug from the top of cliffs and then caves were constructed for coffins. The shafts and tunnels were then closed up. It has also been suggested that ramps of earth and blocks and tackle were used to raise the coffins.

Hanging coffin burial practices also took place in the Philippines and Indonesia.

History professor Lin Xiang from Sichuan University was said to be the first to reveal the mysteries of these coffins after managing to retrieve two coffins in 1979. He found they contained remains of the ancestors of the local Ba people, a boy around 13 years old and a girl around 15 years old.

In the Little Three Gorges section there are clusters of such hanging coffins. A viewing platform enables visitors to take a closer look.


Human haulers or qianfu still haul barges in Shennong Stream in Hubei Province's Badong County. In the old days the stream, which runs parallel to the Yangtze River, was too shallow for boats with a large draft, so barges were used and they were hauled by men.

Today they haul barges for tourists, and sing the same hauling chants sung by their ancestors.

Except in winter, the boatmen were naked (not today) because clothing hindered wading and chaffed the skin. Locals were so accustomed to the naked boatmen that passengers, men or women, were carried off and on the boat by the boatmen on their backs.

After road and other transport replaced river barges, hauling barges became a tourist attraction in 1988.

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