Ancient bells

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The taozhong, the earliest kind of bell, appeared in primitive Chinese society. It was an instrument for labouring people to play after work. The introduction of metal brought about the tongnao (a bronze percussion instrument resembling an inverted bell, sounded by a hammer), tongling (a small bronze bell) and tongzhong (a bronze bell). Then they evolved into the bianling (a chime of small bells), biannao (a chime of percussion instruments resembling inverted bells) and bianzhong (a chime of bells).

Many chimes of bells appeared in the days before the Qin Dynasty (221 BC-206 BC) unified China. Most of them were shaped uniquely like combined pairs of tiles. They produced quick and short notes. Each bell could produce two different notes when the front and the side of its lower part were struck. So such bells were also known as double-note bells. As they were used mainly for performances, they were also called musical bells.

With the development of society and the elapse of time, the musical bells gradually became feudal sacrificial vessels and important symbols of power, rank and position of the ruling classes. According to The Junior Dancing Master, the Ministry of Rites, the Ritual of Zhou, "The emperor could have bells on the four sides of his palace, a duke or prince could have bells on three sides of his residence, a minister could have bells on two sides of his residence and an official could have bells on one side of his residence." This was a clear proof of the rigid hierarchy of power in those days.

Due to the differences in the uses, shapes and regional features and the evolution of times, the ancient Chinese percussion instruments before the Qin Dynasty were divided into the nao (an ancient percussion instrument resembling an inverted bell, sounded by a hammer), duo (a kind of bell used in ancient China when proclamations were issued or in times of war), zheng (a bell-shaped percussion instrument used in ancient times by troops on march), goudiao (a long and narrow bell), yongzhong (a bell with a cylindrical handle on top), niuzhong (a bell with a semi-circular knob on top), yangjiaozhong (a bell shaped like a ram's horns) and tongzhong (a tube-shaped bell).

With the introduction of Buddhism into China after the Qin Dynasty, ancient bells gradually became important musical instruments for Buddhism. As the saying goes, "There are bells at every temple. Without bells, there would be no temples." Round bells took the place of those shaped like combined pairs of tiles. The strokes of bells became sweet and sonorous, spreading to distant places.

With their imposing shapes and deep and prolonged sound, round bells were widely used in Buddhism and Taoism. They also entered the imperial court and became a symbol of imperial power. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, ancient Chinese bells were divided into musical bells, Buddhist bells, Taoist bells, imperial court bells and bells for sounding the night watches. Their functions and uses were broadened. According to a historical record, "Bells are the leading musical instruments made of metal. The peals of big ones can be heard five kilometers away and the strokes of small ones can reach places half a kilometer off. When a monarch held court or an official leaves his office, a hell is struck to call together their subordinates. A bell is struck at a feast to accompany the singing of songs. A bell is struck at a Buddhist or Taoist temple to draw the devotion of worshippers and the awe of ghosts and gods." In those days, bells served as musical instruments, sacrificial vessels and musical instruments used in Buddhist or Taoist masses, keeping up all the uses of bells during the pre–Qin period and the Sui, Tang, Song and Yuan dynasties.


The Big Bell Temple Museum is a multi-functional museum specialized in the collection, preservation, exhibition, study and exploitation of ancient bells and catering to the people's growing cultural demands with its peculiar cultural charm. The different exhibitions display the evolution, designs and characteristics of ancient bells, enabling the visitors to understand the uses and making of ancient bells, the connections between man and bells, between bells and religions and between bells and science and technology as well as other cultural connotations.

With the elapse of time and the alteration of dynasties, changes took place in the designs, uses and makings of bells to varying degrees. The specialized exhibitions of "Historical Evolution." "A Chime of Bells Dating Back to the Warring States Period." "Exquisite Ancient Bells." "A Brief History of Ancient Bells." "A Forest of Bells." "The Five Unique Features of the King of Bells." "The Yongle Bell." "Casting Demonstration." "Ancient Bells from Foreign Countries" and "The Nine-Pavilion Bell Garden" highlight nearly 500 exhibits and present a picture scroll of ancient bells covering more than 4,000 years from the end of primitive society to the present day. In the kingdom of bells, the visitors can comprehend their cultural connotations.


The bell originated from the ling, a small type of bell. At first, the ling was baked out of pottery clay. In the 1950s, archaeologists discovered a red pottery ling from the remains of the Yangshao culture at Miaodigou, the Sanmen Gorges, Henan Province. With a height of 9.2 centimeters and a rim diameter of 5 centimeters, the ling is hollow and a handle is attached to its top. A small hole on each side of the shoulder leads to the inside of the ling to fix the dapper. The surface of the ling is polished without any decorative patterns. The cross section is circular. It was made between 3900-3000 BC. Later, a bell - shaped utensil made out of fine gray pottery clay was unearthed from the remains of the Longshan culture (2800 - 2000 BC) at Doumen Town, Chang' an County, Shaanxi Province. According to The History of Chinese Music by Li Chunyi, "Similar to a bell of the Shang Dynasty, it is rectangular in shape, hollow and fixed with a solid handle." "It might have certain connections with such musical instruments as the zhong and duo of the Shang and Zhou dynasties." It is l1.7 centimeters in height, 9.4 centimeters in horizontal rim diameter and 5.6 centimeters in vertical rim diameter. On both sides of the shoulder are holes for fixing the clapper. Most of the pottery ling dating back to the period of the Longshan culture, now collected by the Gansu Provincial Museum, were shaped like olives. They have bridge - shaped handles and closed cavities. Small balls in the hollow cavities produced the sound when the bells were rocked. The pottery ling was used in different ways. One could hold the handle and rock the ling to produce a pleasant sound. The ling could also be attached to an object, a human being or an animal to jingle.

China entered the Bronze Age around the 16th century BC. In 1983, a bronze ling was unearthed from No. 3,296 tomb at the remains of Taosi, Xiangfen, Shanxi Province (dating back to around 2085 BC). Shaped like a pair of combined tiles, it has no decorative patterns on the surface and is 2.65 centimeters in height. It was buried near the left side of the skeleton. In 1981, another bronze ling shaped like a pair of combined tiles with a decorative ear, 8.5 centimeters in height and 0.5 centimeter in thickness, was unearthed from the remains of Erlitou, Yanshi, Henan Province. It was laid between the chest and the waist of the skeleton. Some people believe it dates back to the early period of the Shang Dynasty, while some others regard it as a bronze ling of the Xia Dynasty.

The ling produced a sound when the clapper was rocked to strike the inner wall, so it was not so easy to control the rhythm of sounding. During the Shang Dynasty, a musical instrument bigger than the ling appeared in Henan, Hunan and other parts of the country. Known as the nao, it was struck from outside to control the rhythm of sounding. The nao was also called the zhizhong. It was struck when it was held by the player in his hand or put on a wooden stand.

From the Western Zhou Dynasty to the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period, musical bells shaped like combined pairs of tiles appeared in many areas of the country. The mouth of such a bell faced down. It was struck more easily when it was in a suspending position. Yongzhong, niuzhong and small bo bells shaped like combined pairs of tiles appeared in chimes or groups. Many of them bore inscriptions on events. The court of the Zhou Dynasty promulgated the ritual and musical institutions embodied by bells and musical stones, suited to the hierarchy. As a musical instrument of the aristocracy, the bell deviated from its original nature and displayed a symbolic function. The suspending pattern and number of bells and musical stones demonstrated one's position and power. In the 26th year of the reign of Shihuang (the First Emperor) of the Qin, weapons from various parts of the country were destroyed in Xianyang and east into six big court bells symbolizing the power and prestige of the imperial court. They were demolished in the later period, but they did mark the appearance of imperial court bells. From then on, the institution and function of imperial court bells were manipulated by rulers of the various dynasties. A section of the History of the Jin Dynasty says, "The Han rites included the ritual of the emperor giving audience to his senior officials on the New Year' s Day. On the lunar New Year' s Day, when the clepsydra had not shown the seventh mark for the night, the bell pealed for the ceremony ... Officials above the rank of commandery governor entered the court to greet the emperor." This refers to the imperial court bell pealing when the emperor received greetings from officials. The bo (a large bell similar to the Bo of the Duke of Qin) was certainly the earliest form of the imperial court bell. Cai Yong of the Eastern Han Dynasty wrote in the Du Duan, "When the flow of the clepsydra ends for the night, the drum is beaten; when the flow of the clepsydra ends for the day, the bell stops pealing." The bo bell or the yongzhong bell was used at first to give the correct time.

From the very beginning the bronze bells in China were endowed with strong emotional coloring and cultural connotations. In his Explanation and Study of Principles of Composition of Characters, Xu Shen of the Eastern Han Dynasty said, "The zhong (bell) is the sound of the Autumn Equinox. All crops have been zhong (cultivated)." In Chinese, zhong (bell) and zhong (cultivate) are pronounced similarly, but in different tones. Harvests were the result of toil in our ancient agricultural country with its yellow soil. The stroke of the bell at a feast conveyed feelings of joy for the bumper harvest as well as the emotion of a man with a heavy heart. A Chinese bell produces a deep, cohesive sound, while a Western bell emits a loud, extrovert sound, displaying the differences in their national character probably caused by the environment. The Tone Monitor, the Ministry of Rites, the Ritual of Zhou summarizes the shapes and sounds of bells, saying: "If the upper part of a bell is bigger than its lower part, the bell produces a muffled sound; if a bell is vertical, it makes a slow sound; if the mouth of a bell is wide open, the sound of the bell is unbridled." The Artificers' Record, the Ritual of Zhou says, "A big and short bell produces a quick sound that can be heard within a short distance; a small and long bell makes a mild sound that can be heard far away." The bigness or smallness of a bell refers to its rim diameter. A Chinese bell produces a slow sound that can be heard far away. This was a choice made carefully and inevitably by our ancients in the light of the environmental and social factors.

With the collapse of the ritual and musical institutions during the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period, the musical bell, which had served as a typical instrument of the ritual and musical institutions, gradually stepped down from the stage of history. Buddhism was propagated vigorously in China during the Southern and Northern Dynasties. The Buddhist bell was born on the basis of the ancient bell and served as a musical instrument at a Buddhist mass. The Taoist bell, the time bell and the imperial court bell that appeared later also followed the shape of the Buddhist bell. The designs of bells in the areas inhabited by ethnic' groups had distinctive ethnic features, such as bells of the ram's horns culture and the square - shaped culture. After the Tang Dynasty, Buddhist bells in China conspicuously played the role of a dragon's head in the development of ancient bells. The Yongle Bell of the Ming Dynasty was an outstanding representative of Buddhist bells and ancient Chinese bells. Known as the "King of Bells with Five Unique Features," it possessed the richest historical and cultural connotations, the largest number of inscribed characters, the first - rate acoustic properties, scientific mechanical structure and superb casting technology.

So Chinese bells were no longer simple bells for practical uses. They became a symbol of an idea, a culture and a spirit. In class society, the symbol of idea and culture could naturally be utilized by the dominators, resulting in a sharp contrast between the brilliance of bells and the sorrow of society. Such a course of history has provided for us a profound lesson of the "Admonish - the - World Bell." It always admonishes people to pay attention to historical lessons and experiences. On the one hand, they should avoid following the track of the overturned cart. On the other hand, they should realize that when civilization has advanced to the level of today and society has developed to such a stage, the cream of the bell culture may become a criterion governing interpersonal relations and man - society relations.

On September 27, 1925, Dr. Sun Yat-sen' s funeral committee unanimously decided to adopt the design made by Lü Yanzhi for the Mausoleum of Dr. Sun Yat-sen and invited him to work as the designer of the mausoleum. Earlier it had scrutinized all the designs collected through public bidding. The plane figure of LüYanzhi' s design presented the shape of an alarm bell which implied the need to "arouse the masses of the people." This conformed to Dr. Sun Yat-sen' s mettle and spirit. At the age of 31, Lü Yanzhi became famous in China and abroad because of his prize design of Dr. Sun Yat-sen's Mausoleum.

The historical mission of "arousing the masses of the people" was assumed by the leaders and the political party leading the new- democratic revolution and socialist revolution and construction. The bell culture developed further. When the 11th Asian Games opened in Beijing in 1990, the sponsors held an impressive bell - and - drum beating ceremony to enhance the spirit of striving to make the Chinese nation stronger and stronger and promoting virtue by material means. The 11 strokes of the bell symbolized the opening of the 11th Asian Games, a grand gathering of unity, friendship and progress. This move was highly appraised by public opinion in China and abroad. New "Admonish- the -World" bells, such as motto bells and school motto bells, appeared in China in 1992. These bells explored the resources of moral worship from ancient Chinese bells and carried forward the ethical progress in the course of the Chinese revolution over the past dozens of years, turning the Chinese bell culture into a new culture of practical importance that plays a guiding role. The core of the bell culture is education; it is worship, worship of ethics, kind- heartedness and justice. The Chinese bell culture has become an aspect of progress in social belief and cultural and ethical progress.