Old friends of your favourite blogger will know that I used to spend a fair amount of time in the old days going around ringing church bells in towers the length and breadth of England. Campanology is very much a living art form in the UK and when rung properly, the sound of church bells can be a glorious noise.
So when I discovered there was an ancient bell museum located in the Haidian District of Beijing, it was a bit of a no-brainer that I would want to go along for a visit.
Built in 1733 during the Ming Dynasty (1644-1911), the Dazhong (giant bell) Si (temple) - 大钟寺 - was where emperors presided over rituals praying for rain. It’s the only one of its kind in China.
Bells are considered auspicious in the Chinese tradition; and during major ceremonies, they are often rung 108 times. It is said that there are 12 months, 24 solar terms and 72 hou (5 days in a hou) in the Chinese lunar calendar, which even using my maths comes to 108 in all. According to Buddhism, people also have 108 worries which will be removed by the sound of a bell. (Hmmm… 108 worries = manic depressive in my book!)
The museum, which was actually set up in 1985, has over 700 bells, made of bronze, iron and jade. The oldest ones were cast over 1000 years ago and there are exhibits from all over the world. There’s a display illustrating the evolution of Chinese bells and the history of Chinese metallurgy.
Actually, when Dazhong Si was built, it was originally called Juesheng Si. 10 years later during the reign of another emperor, a big bell was moved into the temple (of which, more later), hence the name. As well as bells, there are also extensive pictures throughout the museum. Here are some of Juesheng Si’s abbots doing whatever it was abbots used to get up to in those days…
There’s also a lovely old drawing of what the temple used to look like without today’s huge car park butting onto the Third Ring Road.
One thing that is interesting about this museum is to see how bells around the world compare with one another. Korean Buddhist bells, for instance, have unique structural characteristics at their tops. Not only are there handles but also tubes for adjusting the sound. Chinese Buddhist bells on the other hand, only have handles in the shape of a pulao (or dragon) for hanging. Korean Buddhist bells also have loads of figures such as flying apsaras (supernatural female beings) or Buddha while there are only a small number of such patterns on Chinese Buddhist bells.
This Korean bell was cast in AD771 by Won Kang Sik…
Apart from Korean bells, there are also quite a few other bells from around the world. The Museum has sought to collaborate with similar ventures overseas – for instance a decade ago it co-sponsored with the Institute of European Bell Art a highly successful "Sound of the Dragon" Ancient Chinese Bell Exhibition in Paris.
On display there are a number of “friendship bells” – exchanges with France, Belgium, Italy, the USA, Japan, Italy, Norway, Finland etc. Here is a Russian bell…
I only saw one British bell, however – this Gillett & Johnston one, cast in Croydon in 1903 and weighing 72kg. It used to hang in a French church.
Apart from the traditional bell shapes that are found across the world, there are also on display some chime bells, such as these relics dating back to the Chu State and unearthed in Heshangling, Xichuan County, Henan.
There’s no doubt about it; Chinese bell culture has a very long history. There are basically two sorts of Chinese bell - a zhong and a Ling. Zhongs produce sound when struck from the outside with a hammer; Lings, on the other hand, have their clappers inside. Here’s a really ornate Ling known as the Qingong Bozhong Bell…
One of the really nice things about this museum is that it is part and parcel of the temple itself. As you wander from courtyard to courtyard and from building to building, there is something to be discovered at every turn. Practically every building in the temple complex has something to do with bells and you never really know what you are going to see until you step through the doorway of each building.
Some are set up as galleries displaying a particular type of bell or concentrating on a particular period or geographical location. Buddhism and Taoism both played a major role in the history of Chinese bells. As long ago as the Sui and Tang dynasties, Buddhism was at its height. The amount of temples and monks increased rapidly. Wherever there was a temple, you could almost guarantee to find bells. The patterns on the bells became richer.
However, with the coming of the Song, Liao, Jin and Yuan dynasties, the casting of bells went into a decline, although a great amount of iron bells appeared in this period.
But with the advent of the Ming dynasty, the casting of Buddhist and Taoist bells reached ascendancy once again and many large bells appeared during this period.
Bells were also used for sounding the night watches in the centre of cities and were hung in specialised bell towers that first started to appear in the Han Dynasty.
One of the most beautiful bells on display is the Qianlong Court Bell from the reign of Emperor Qianlong who ruled during the Qing Dynsasty between 1736-1795. As its name suggests, the bell was made for the imperial court. It has 22 flying dragon motifs despite having no inscriptions. It has been designated a grade one state-level relic.
At the other end of the scale, there are also a number of Vajra Bells used to wake up and invite the Buddha and Bodhisattva in Tibetan Buddhism. These Vajra bells represent wisdom and virtue…
At the end furthest away from the main entrance is the building that most visitors come to see. This is known as the Big Bell Tower, and is circular in shape at the top and square below according to the Chinese saying that 'the sky is circular and the earth is square'.
Surprise, surprise… the Big Bell Tower contains – guess what! Yup. You guessed it – a big bell!
Made in 1403, the first year of Emperor Yong-le of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the bell was one of the three projects that he commanded after re-establishing Beijing as the capital. (The other two were the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven.)
The Great Bell of Yong-le weighs 46.5 tons, is 6.75 metres high, and is struck at the beginning of each Chinese New Year as well as the Spring Festival and other major celebrations.
The blurb tells us that its structure is technically perfect. Music experts at the Chinese Acoustics Institute found its tone to be “pure, deep and melodious” with frequencies ranging from 22 to 800 Hz. And according to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, its loud and clear sound reaches up to 120 decibels and can be heard 50 kilometres away in the depth of the night.
Now, this bell was originally kept in the Imperial Longevity Temple. Shipping the bell from the foundry to the temple in the 15th century was obviously a big problem, since there was no vehicle or machine that could handle it. But these cunning Chinese had a wonderful plan. After the bell was made, they waited until the winter came. Then they dug a well every 500 metres, dug a ditch, which they filled with water from the newly-sunk wells and made an ice route. The bell was then placed on a huge sleigh, and hauled to its destination by oxen. In 1733 the bell was moved form the Imperial Longevity Temple to its present site.
Clever as this was, it is not the most impressive thing about the Yong-le Bell. The most difficult part of the casting was the 100+ Buddhist sutras inscribed over the entire surface of the bell both inside and out. There are altogether 227,000 Chinese characters inscribed on it.
But there’s more. Once one has finished wandering around inside the myriad temple buildings, it is time to enjoy the Nine Pavilion Bell Garden. This was founded in 1994 and is made up of a 2200 sq metre garden with, of course, nine bell pavilions linked by corridors containing 32 bells.
I don’t know if it is the open air that adds to their attraction, but these bells look gorgeous in their present location.
Of course, throughout the museum are endless notices exhorting visitors not to touch the exhibits. But I guess this little girl couldn’t resist the temptation; and egged on by her naughty parents, she grabbed a wooden stick lying on the ground and gave this flat bell a damned good thumping. Pure magic. One day I want to own a dinner gong like that. Hmmm... I wonder if this one’s been counted….
But any thoughts I have along such lines are quickly laid to rest when I spy a warning notice by the main entrance. Hey, I guess it would be too big to cart back on the subway to my place anyway!