The Ringing of Sacred Chimes
by Peter Micic

Huang Xiangpeng testing the bronze chime bells excavated from the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng, Wuhan, 1978

A story by Peter Micic of Chinese bells - ceremonies, errant eunuchs and mathematical craftsmanship.

All over the world, the ringing of bells commemorates decisive events in history and events of national and local importance. Such events mark liminal changes of status: a prince is crowned king, for instance, or marriage vows are exchanged between two people. The tintinnabulations of church bells in the West have symbolized religious power and authority.

In China, bells have also marked important rituals and long been synonymous with imperial rulership. The casting and tuning of bells, in particular, became de rigueur for newly proclaimed dynasties to ensure harmony and prosperity.

The new dynasty was tuned to the “yellow bell” (黄钟), the fundamental pitch of the Chinese twelve pitches. The “yellow bell”—yellow of course being the imperial colour—was hallowed and sacred. The perfect casting and tuning of the bells was believed to influence heaven and be a good omen for government.

Tuning and controlling of the pitches thus became a fundamental activity of the state or empire. The fundamental pitch (gong) was the first in what was essentially a set of five anhemitonic tones (that is, a five-tone scale with no semitones): gong, shang, jiao, zhi and yu. These tones or pitches were intimately associated with cosmological foundations of the Chinese cosmos. The five tones also correlated with the five elements: gong (earth), shang, (metal), jiao (wood), zhi (fire) and yu (water).

The most important ritual music of the imperial courts—the “Zhonghe Shaoyue” (中和韶乐)—performed when the emperor received officials, princes or foreign ambassadors is no longer played, but the practice of casting bells, inscribing images and texts on the bells during its casting to memorialize an event, and the sounding of them to mark important national or historical events, continues to this day: A chime bell struck eleven times to herald the opening of the 11th Asian Games held in Beijing in 1990, the Century Altar Bell was cast to celebrate the new Millennium, and a commemorative bell was made to mark the handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China, July 1, 1997.

Some of the largest ringing bells in the world are found in southeast Asia. The largest ringing bell is the Mingun Bell in Myanmar (Burma) weighing just over 97 tons. The Great Bell of Kyoto at the Chion-in temple in Japan weighs 74 tons and the Century Altar Bell in Beijing 50 tons. Large bronze bells like those in Myanmar and Japan, imperial and religious bells in China are absent of a clapper or tongue. These bells are sounded using a long thick wooden ramrod suspended from ropes or chains struck with a mallet. Church bells in contrast, are generally made to swing until the bell is inverted, the clapper making one blow for each revolution as the bell revolves in a clockwise and anti-clockwise motion.

Sounding a bell or “inviting a bell to sound” as Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, is much kinder than “hitting” or “striking” it. In Zen (Chan) Buddhism, the bell is sounded as a reminder to be fully alive and attentive in the here and now. In the Roman Catholic tradition, the ringing of the Angelus serves to remind and thereby strengthen one’s faith in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Carillons at national war memorials throughout the world are sounded to remind us not to forget.

Bronze chime bells excavated from tombs in China in late twentieth century that resembled “truncated cones that had been slightly squashed,” yielded a miraculous discovery.

In the spring of 1977, the eminent music historian Huang Xiangpeng (1927-1997) and a team of researchers from the Music Research Institute in Beijing spent three months examining some two hundred bronze bells unearthed in Shaanxi, Gansu, Shanxi and Henan provinces.

After tests were carried out on these pre-Qin bronze bells, it was discovered that they could produce two distinct pitches. That is to say, these bells produced not only one pitch at a designated central striking position, but on the sides of the bells as well (major and minor 2nds and 3rds, and a perfect fourth).

Archaeological artifacts have always provided the necessary corollary and discrepancies to historical textual sources, but while the spade revealed startling evidence of the two-tone phenomenon, some of Huang’s colleagues dismissed his findings as “far-fetched” and “ridiculous” because there was basically nothing on the subject in Chinese textual sources.

Bronze chime bells that could produce two independent pitches were scrutinized by Chinese acousticians for over half a century, but nobody, apparently, was paying attention to it. The phenomenon might have been discovered in 1957 when a set of thirteen bronze chime bells excavated from Xinyang, Henan province were used to perform the anthem The East is Red. An e-bell was missing, but during rehearsal a player found he could get that pitch by striking the c-bell on its side. The enormous significance of the second pitch, however, remained unsuspected.

It was not until the discovery in the summer of 1978 when a unitary ensemble of 65 bronze chime bells were excavated from the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng in Leigudun, Suixian county, Hubei province, that the dual pitch phenomenon was fully recognized. Huang was naturally jubilant with the discovery. He compared it to finally winning a “lawsuit,” as if he had spent years defending his case to a jury of doubting Thomases.

With the help and assistance of Qiu Xigui, an expert in ancient Chinese philology at Peking University, and abetted by Huang‘s own mathematical ability, they spent months of detective work deciphering over 2,800 inscriptions on these chime bells.

By the time Huang had gathered enough ammunition and evidence to publish his earlier findings in Music Views in January 1980, the dual-pitch phenomenon was already universally recognized. Almost twenty years later, replicas of these chime bells featured in performances of Tan Dun’s Symphony 1997. The real bells however, made a special guest appearance during the debut of the piece at the ceremony commemorating the reunification with Hong Kong and the People’s Republic July 1, 1997 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Some wonderful black and white and colour prints of the chime bells taken during the excavation of the tomb appear in the Hubei volume to the Compendium of Chinese Music Antiquities. Suspended or positioned on a large frame, they conjure up a battlefield, a landscape of havoc and ruin, armies on the march and legions of the dead lying across the red-brown earth. As ancient texts illustrate, drums and bells marshalled the advances and retreats of troops in battle. In the Rites of Zhou, for example, it is recorded that in warfare, the drum signalled the attack, and the mallet-struck zheng bell signalled the retreat.

Bells obviously require bell-ringers. The earliest ringers in the West were monks and priests. But the bells that rang out from the drum and bell tower at the Gate of Military Prowess (Shenwumen) in the Forbidden City during the five watches were performed by errant officials or eunuchs, possibly those who had received a beating with wooden rods by officials of the Board of Punishments from the Meridian Gate.

Disgruntled bell ringers? I imagine a grotesque Quasimoto-Charles Laughton-figure plodding his way to the drum and bell tower at the Gate of Military Prowess in the early hours of the morning.

When the Qing emperors lived in Rehe (Jehol) or Yuanmingyuan (the old Summer Palace), drums and bells sounded from the Gate of Military Prowess in a pattern of 108 beats at intervals of every two hours, starting at dusk. When the emperors was residing in the the Forbidden City, only the sound of drums at each watch was heard. It is noteworthy that the number 108 has religious and spiritual significance in the chanting rituals of Chinese Buddhists and Taoists. In the Indian subcontinent as well, 108 has long been a sacred number corresponding to the 108 extant Upanishads from the Vedas.

The casting process of the bronze bells in China is fascinating: bell founders could calibrate major and minor third, and perfect fourth intervals without sophisticated equipment. I put this question to Lothar von Falkenhausen, author of Suspended Music: Chime-Bells in the Culture of Bronze Age China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993) earlier in the year. In February he wrote:

Thomas Rossing and I had calculated all chimed sets for which published measurements existed in 1992 and found that there is no consistent mathematical that was used in bell design. The only possible explanation is that the bell-casters proceeded by experience and experiment; untold bells that did not work out must have been melted down again in the process of casting the chimes now preserved. What the casters thought they were doing is, however, still beyond the reach of archaeological construction.

Numerous accounts of the importance of bells vis-à-vis statecraft in China can be gleaned from the historical record. One of the most entertaining accounts that I have read comes from In Search of Old Peking. It recounts what it took to cast the perfect bell in the Bell Tower (Zhonglou) for Yongle, the third emperor of the Ming dynasty. Fact or fiction, it draws our attention to the casting, tuning, and sounding of bronze bells in imperial China as potent political acts which served to define her past, present and future:

For some reason or other the foundry could never obtain a perfect casting; no matter how hard they tried, there was always something wrong with it. At last the Emperor Yung Lo [Yongle] becoming impatient at the constant delays, threatened to have the owner of the foundry beheaded, unless he completed the bell within a definite time. The bell-founder’s daughter noticing her father’s distress and learning the cause, persuaded him to take her to the foundry when the next casting took place, although women were strictly forbidden to be present as the feminine principle (yin) was suppose to have an evil influence. Just as the molten metal was being let out into the mould, the girl suddenly jumped into it. Her father made a desperate clutch at her to try and save her, but only succeeded in catching hold of one of her shoes which came off in his hand. This time the bell was perfectly cast, without a blemish, but according to popular belief, it has ever since given forth the sound “Hsieh!” (shoe) when struck.

  • Arlington, L.C Lewisohn, William, In Search of Old Peking, Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1987:174.
  • Wang, Jinglun, “Shenwumende zhonggu,” (“The Bells and Drums at the Gate of Military Prowess”) in Zijincheng quanjing shilu (A Panoramic Memoir of the Forbidden City), Beijing: Huayi chubanshe, 2003:93.
  • Zhou Chen, Huang Xiangpeng: Jinian wenji (A Commemorative Anthology in Honour of Huang Xiangpeng), Fuzhou: Fujian jiaoyu chubanshe, 2001.
There are currently 1 Comments for The Ringing of Sacred Chimes
by Peter Micic.

Comments on The Ringing of Sacred Chimes
by Peter Micic

The same bells were used by Robert W. Bagley, professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton, to make the case for stronger policing of art dealers and museums in purchasing possibly looted artifacts with questionable or no provenance. Imagine, he says, how the bells - assuming the tomb had been properly drained as the archaeologists did, otherwise the wood frame would have disintegrated - would have been sold piecemeal, and the oldest known example of the chromatic scale anywhere in the world would have been scattered across the globe.

The article also contains some color photos, including a close up the bell inscriptions.

China Media Timeline
Major media events over the last three decades
Danwei Model Workers
The latest recommended blogs and new media
From 2008
Front Page of the Day
A different newspaper every weekday
From the Vault
Classic Danwei posts
+ Culture and corporate propaganda in Soho Xiaobao (2007.11): Mid-2007 issues of Soho Xiaobao (SOHO小报), illustrating the complicated identity of in-house magazines run by real estate companies.
+ Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship (2010.03): Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship at an officially sanctioned meeting in Shenzhen.
+ Crowd-sourced cheating on the 2010 gaokao (2010.06): A student in Sichuan seeks help with the ancient Chinese section of this year's college entrance exam -- while the test is going on!
Danwei Archives