Cliff coffins add mystery to Wuyi Mountain

Ancient coffins on sheer cliffs. How did they get there? Tourists marvel at the mystery as they enjoy the stunning scenery and history of Wuyi Mountain.
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Yunu Peak, a major scenic site of Wuyi Mountain, resembles three sisters standing side by side.

Even before its listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, Wuyi Mountain was already a popular tourist destination in China.

The mountain scenic area straddles Fujian and Jiangxi provinces and contains a natural reserve and the ruins of an ancient city.

Nine-Bend Creek, which snakes about 7 kilometers through the area, is considered its lifeblood. The waterway doesn’t have exactly nine bends, and it’s certainly wider than the usual definition of “creek.” Gazing down on it from above, it looks like an emerald belt cinched among craggy peaks.

Visitors can choose either bamboo rafts or rubber boats to go on sightseeing tours on the waterway.

The rafts, propelled by locals using long bamboo spars, allow tourists to take in the magnificent scenery at a slow pace. Grotesque rock formations on either bank include ancient hanging coffins on cliffs.

The rubber boats are more adventurous, taking in a route that includes some mild whitewater. For first-time visitors, the bamboo raft trip is probably the best choice because it exemplifies local culture.

A raft can accommodate up to six people. There are no sideboards. The surface of the river is right beside your feet. But there is no danger because the boatmen are experienced and skilful, and the current is smooth. Of course, life jackets are always required, just in case.

The whole journey lasts about 90 minutes. It begins from a dock in Xingcun Village and goes upstream to a dock near the Wuyi Palace.

The popularity of the rafts does tend to spoil the natural serenity of the waterway. Long lines of people wait to board rafts, and the number of rafts has grown so that it can almost seem like a traffic jam at times on the river.

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A raft trip allows tourists to take in the magnificent scenery at a slow pace.

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Coffins found the 18 cliff sides in the mountain date back about 3,500 years.

Cliff coffins

Those who have been to Wuyi Mountain never stop talking about the coffins on the cliffs lining Nine-Bend Creek.

They are found on 18 cliff sides in the mountain area and date back about 3,500 years, according to carbon dating. Some of the coffins are perched on wood frames jutting from the cliffs; some peek out of small mountain caves.

The burial tradition symbolized respect for the dead, and their location vis-à-vis one another identified the social status of the dead. The higher, the better.

It is believed that cliff burials are part of the Ou Culture. Ou was the name of a country that existed in eastern China some 3,500-4,000 years ago. The descendants of Ou people are today’s Zhuang ethnic minority.

The Zhuang recount a tale that has been passed down through the centuries. It is about an old lady living alone, who adopted a “man with short tail.” When she died, the man conjured up a wild wind to send her body up to the cliff. It is said that every March 3 on the lunar calendar, the man, who was actually the son of a dragon, would come to the cliff to pay tribute to the old woman. That was the beginning of the Song Festival, a significant event in the calendar of the Zhuang.

Magic powers aside, how did ancient people manage to hoist coffins so high on cliffs? Ancient books credit supernatural forces. No modern explanation has been verified.

From a bamboo raft, visitors use binoculars to get a closer look at coffins nearly 100 meters above the water, marveling at a mystery yet to be solved.

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The shape of Dawang Peak resembles a black-gauze cap worn by officials in ancient China.

Dawang Peak and One-Line Sky

Mountain attractions are as compelling as those on the water. Dawang Peak and One-Line Sky are considered sights not to be missed in the scenic area.

Dawang literally means “king.” It is the first peak at the entrance of the Wuyi Mountain area, perched on the north side of the Nine-Bend Creek.

The shape of the peak looks like a black-gauze cap that ancient Chinese officials typically wore, which is why the crag is also called Official Cap Peak.

The 530-meter-high peak is surrounded by cliffs. There is only one narrow passageway to the top. It’s quite steep and so narrow at parts that only one person at a time can squeeze through.

Geographer Xu Xiake (1587-1641) said in his work “Xu Xiake’s Travels” that the passageway was “one of the most difficult to navigate in Wuyi Mountain.”

The view from the top of the peak is worth the painstaking trek. From there, one can view the Nine-Bend Creek and an array of other natural attractions. But beware on the descent because going down is always harder on the legs than climbing.

One-Line Sky provides a different scenery altogether on the southern side of the Nine-Bend Creek. In a valley, a giant rock called Lingyan, or “rock of spirit,” spans three caves. One is called Fuxi Cave. Inside, a visitor can see a very narrow line of sunshine creeping through a long crack, as if someone had cleaved the rock with an axe.

It is very dark and wet inside Fuxi Cave, where white-furred bats live. You might see a row of bats staring at you if you look up. Even if you don’t look, the pungent odor of bat guano will tell you the mammals are there. Have no fear. Bats don’t attack humans.

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Wuyi Palace is the most ancient Taoist temple in the area.

Wuyi Palace

Wuyi Palace, the most ancient Taoist temple in the area, has undergone destruction and reconstruction. Today, two 900-year-old osmanthus trees bear witness to the colorful history of the temple.

First built in about AD 742, the temple was revered by ancient emperors who worshiped Lord Wuyi, a mountain god in the area. Ancient people also believed that Lord Wuyi was in charge of land ownership in the netherworld. A ceremony was held to worship him before graves were constructed.

Many scholars and writers were associated with the temple during the Song Dynasty (960-1276), including Zhu Xi (1130-1200), one of the most renowned philosophers of ancient China.

Wannian Hall in the temple has been turned into a museum honoring Zhu. His life is depicted there. Other halls serve as a calligraphy school.

Behind the museum is a street replicating the Song Dynasty style, but sadly there are no real relics left there.

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Part of the wall that fortified the ancient city of Minyue

The ruins of Minyue City

Minyue was an ancient ethnic group who lived in the Wuyi Mountain area. Their king Wuzhu, who died in 192 BC, built his capital about 24 kilometers south of the scenic area.

The ruins of the city were first discovered in 1958. Covering 480,000 square meters, the ancient city once had a palace for the lord and residences for the nobles. Outside the city wall, residences, workshops and graveyards were neatly layed out. Nothing is left apart from some foundations.

It is believed that Wuzhu was one of the powers behind a rebellion against the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC) and helped defeat the warlord Xiang Yu to found the West Han Dynasty (220 BC-AD 8). He was rewarded with a lordship by Emperor Gaozu.

The culture of Minyue was rich. More than 4,000 pieces of pottery relics were unearthed in the ruins. The city also had quite an orderly drainage system, which was a model for ancient Chinese cities.

The splendor of the city, however, was short-lived. After Wuzhu died, local nobles went to war with smaller neighboring nations. Wuzhu’s descendant Yushan even led a rebellion against the central royal court. Minyue was destroyed.

A museum sits on the ruins, where visitors can view pottery, iron and bronze relics.

If you go:

It takes about three and a half hours by high-speed train from Shanghai to Wuyishan City. The Wuyi Mountain National Holiday Resort is about 15 kilometers from the city. The Hutao, Ximen and Nanmen bus stations all provide transport to the resort. There are three bus stations inside the resort.

To get to the ruins of Minyue City, take bus No. 6 bus from the Wuyi Mountain National Holiday Resort to the Wuyi Mountain Bus Station, where shuttle buses to the ruins are available.

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