China's Coffin Chaser

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

Even Chen nearly broke her promise to her professor. Back in her graduate school days, she had to abandon her doctoral candidacy at southern China's Zhongshan University because of her obligations as a wife and mother. So after earning a master's degree in the early 1980s, she went home to Sichuan province, where her journalist husband was raising their two young children alone.

"It was the biggest mistake of my life," Chen said.

Hired as a researcher for the Sichuan Nationalities Research Institute, Chen's focus was on population changes and birth control patterns. But she couldn't forget her mentor's request.

Soon, she went back on the road, mostly using her own money.

For more than 10 years, she has hiked through the country, verifying the existence of cave coffins in at least 10 provinces. She has traveled from Fujian, across from Taiwan, to Guangxi, next to Vietnam, tracing the route of the migratory Bo. She found at least 200 suspended coffins, most of them concentrated in Sichuan province near the Yangtze River.

The caskets are in surprisingly good condition. Carved out of hardwood logs, they are often shaped like boats. Almost all overlook a river, leading Chen to believe that the Bo were fishermen. Based on the coffins' locations, she figures that the tribe originated in coastal China and slowly migrated inland.

From her own climbs, Chen surmises that the caskets probably were not hoisted along the face of the cliffs. Most likely, they were carried up the back of the mountain on hidden, less strenuous paths.

From talking to locals and hearing their folk tales, Chen also speculates that the Bo buried their dead on the cliffs more to shelter them from wild animals and other predators than to send their souls to heaven, a more Western religious interpretation.

Because Chen had little money, her research has usually involved walking from valley to mountain and crawling up the spectacular cliffs. On a good day, someone might give her a ride from place to place.

She had no high-tech equipment, just cotton shoes or sneakers. She owned no camera, no telescope. Everything she used was borrowed from friends, including the Chinese-made point-and-shoot cameras that often produced rolls of blanks. As a backup, she took up drawing.

At night, Chen stayed at the cheapest hostels, where the accommodations often slept 10 to a room. The only amenity was a 25-watt bulb. By its dim light, Chen jotted down her day's findings and prepared for the next morning's journey.

If she decided to splurge, food was a bowl of soup and tofu. Otherwise, she ate bread and water.

Chen hated it when local officials asked with their eyes why a scholar from a big city traveled on such a shoestring budget.

"It's very embarrassing," she said. "Intellectuals are not treated as human beings in China."

But what troubled her most was the reckless disregard for a dwindling national treasure.

The discovery of the coffins in China's impoverished countryside has only quickened their destruction--first, in the 1960s, when they were targeted in the destroy-everything madness of the Cultural Revolution, and, more recently, when they were seen as a moneymaker.

The coffins have drawn not only tourists but grave robbers. Most of them, Chen said, were unaware that the Bo people did not follow a tradition of burying their dead with valuables such as gold and jade. The robbers found only skeletons and straw. Disappointed, they often kicked the coffins off the cliffs.

Some efforts at protection failed. Officials charged with removing certain caskets put them in museums without ventilation or air conditioning. The logs that had survived for thousands of years began to rot. Chen said this continues today.

"It's a nightmare," she said.

The economic revolution in China in the last two decades has meant that preservation took a back seat to profit.

Too many times, Chen hiked up a mountain only to hear the rumbling of explosives. The locals were extracting rock to sell to builders and real estate developers.

Each time the dynamite exploded, the coffins would shake. Some would fall.

"I was furious," Chen said. "The government just opens one eye and shuts the other. They know it's a national treasure, but they can't turn it into money like they can with the rocks."

To reach the coffins, Chen has crawled over sharp stones and through thorns. She has broken a rib, limped 40 miles with bleeding shins, and hitched rides on icy roads without guardrails. She has begged for passage over rough torrents on rafts with barely room enough for one.

By 1987, Chen's 72-year-old mentor lay dying of cancer. From his hospital bed, he dictated the introduction to the book, even though Chen had yet to finish it. Twenty days later, he died.

Even after Chen published in 1992, her struggle in behalf of the cave coffins continued. She says the book outlining her years of discovery has been stolen from her.

Her nemesis is Luo Yihu, a well-connected history professor at Sichuan University. Three years ago, he published an award-winning book on the coffins. Unlike Chen's work, which reads like academic research, Luo's book had commercial appeal. In weeks it sold as many volumes--4,000--as Chen's had in a decade.

The writing was easy for Luo, Chen charges, because he lifted entire chapters from her book, including spelling mistakes and hand-drawn illustrations. For so many years, she said, she was alone in caring about the coffins. Now an obscure topic has become popular material and someone else is profiting.

Luo denies the allegations. Just because he hasn't seen as many coffins as Chen doesn't preclude him from writing about them, he insists.

"She thinks she is the only person who has the right to write about this and no one else," Luo said.

Chen took Luo to court, and in September a judge awarded her about $4,300 in damages and ordered Luo to print an apology in an academic journal. But Luo says that's ludicrous. He's appealing.

"I know I am not perfect, but I almost lost my life researching this book," Chen said. "If he could just steal it from me, I won't be able to shut my eyes when I die."

As she awaits another ruling, her heart remains with the coffins. She knows time is not on their side.

"Human destruction is their No. 1 enemy," Chen said. "They've survived thousands of years. But if we don't do more to preserve them, in the next 100 years, they could all be gone."

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