Brian Salter's Blogs:
Telling the Time in Beijing


What does a tiger, a rat, a dog, an ox and a pig, together with a bell and a drum share in common? I have to admit that a few months ago I would have had absolutely no idea, though I am somewhat the wiser now.

Whereas most people are aware that the Chinese zodiac is based around 12 animals, fewer know that five of those beasts represented time periods in the night for the Chinese in days of yesteryear, and as recently as 1924 a large bell and drum were struck to let the entire population of Beijing know what time it was.

Beijing’s drum tower, or Gǔlóu (鼓楼), can be found sitting on the central axis of the capital – a meridian line that goes right through the middle of the Forbidden City, along with Tian Anmen Square, Mao’s mausoleum, Jingshan Hill, and the Birds Nest stadium in the Olympic Park.

Zhōnglóu (钟楼), the bell tower, stands 100 metres away from the drum tower on the same meridian. Together they used to dominate Beijing's ancient skyline.

Nowadays, you can just about see them from a couple of blocks away, or from another high building, but they don’t do an awful lot to stand out from the crowd.

Of course, despite the fact that they used to be a central facet of life in old Beijing, their principal role these days is (yet another) tourist attraction, a fact not missed out on by the swarms of rickshaw drivers who pester the passers-by at the base of the two buildings.

The Bell and Drum towers were the very essence of Chinese chronology during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties and it was only when Pu Yi, the last emperor of China, was forced to leave the Forbidden City that western-style clockwork was made the official means of time-keeping.

As early as in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220), there was 'a morning bell and a dusk drum'. In fact, "The morning bell and dusk drum" is a Chinese idiom, and during ancient times local officials would open the city gates at the toll of the bell early in the morning and close them with the strike of the drum in the evening.

Telling the time by bell and drum played an important role in people’s lives when there was no other means to keep track of the time. As a result, bell and drum towers were widely constructed in almost every city throughout the country though the towers in Beijing are the largest and highest. Unlike in other cities, Beijing’s are unique, in that they were placed fore-and-aft, not in the traditional way of standing right-and-left horizontally.

The Drum Tower was built in 1272 (during the reign of Kublai Khan), at which time it stood at the very heart of the Yuan capital Dadu. In 1420, under the Ming Emperor Yongle, the building was reconstructed to the east of the original site and in 1800 under the Qing Emperor Jiaqing, large-scale renovations were carried out.

It is a two-storey building made of wood, standing at a height of 47 metres. In ancient times the upper storey of the building housed 24 drums, of which only one survives in a dilapidated condition today. Its head was made of an entire ox hide and is 1.5 metres in diameter.

To get to it you have to climb up a very steep wooden staircase – upwards on the right hand side and downwards on the left (though I suspect this depends on which way you are looking at it, of course!)

Just in case you are too thick to notice the steep ascent, there are helpful notices displayed the length of the climb that read “Caution: The high tower and steep stairs!”.

The method of sounding the drum was to beat it quickly for 18 times and then slowly for another 18 times. Altogether there were three rounds like this, making 108 bonks. Nowadays the rubber-neckers are treated to a good banging roughly once an hour on the half hour on reconstructed drums.

Of course, you couldn’t ask your average drummer to work out the time all by himself; so the drum tower was also equipped with four bronze clepsydras , or water clocks, dating back to the Song Dynasty. A large bronze gong was linked to the water clocks through a series of mechanical devices and sounded each quarter of an hour. When the system of telling time with incense coils, which burned for hours were introduced, the clepsydras fell into disuse.

The Drum tower's drums were used to keep time at night, while the Bell Tower's bells kept time during the day. In the Qing Dynasty, the hours were marked at night starting at 7pm, when the drums were sounded 13 times, a procedure that was known as "setting the watch." Each subsequent two-hour interval was marked by a single drum beat until 7am. I wonder if the emperors used to turn over in their beds and bury their heads under the pillow cursing those dratted drums every night! It reminds me of the time I spent an unforgettable night many years ago in Würzburg in Germany in a hotel close to the cathedral whose bells rang out throughout the night.

Close behind the Drum Tower stands the Bell Tower, slightly bigger than its neighbour, but this one is made of stone. It’s got grey walls and a green glazed roof and each face of the Bell Pavilion has an arched gateway to let the sound travel as far as possible (it is said that the bell could be heard 20kms away).

It first came into use during the reign of the Ming Emperor Yongle. After being destroyed by fire it was not until 1747 that Emperor Qianlong undertook its reconstruction. Obviously Qianlong was a dab hand with the bricks and mortar as this building was so sturdy that the only damage that it suffered during the Tangshan earthquake of 1976 was the loss of a single stone animal head decorating the roof.

Once again, as no one has thought to install an escalator, the poor hapless tourists have to climb loads of steps to get to the bell chamber.

The Bell Tower originally housed a huge iron bell. But because its tolling was not loud enough, this was replaced by a massive cast bronze bell over 10 inches thick that is in perfect condition today. The iron bell was moved to the back of the Drum Tower where it has remained for over 500 years. As recently as 1924, it is said that the bronze bell could be heard ringing out the 7pm chime from a distance of over 20 kilometres.

Hanging on an eight-square wooden frame of the second floor, the bell in this tower is the largest and heaviest in China. It is 7.02 meters (23 feet) high including the pendants, with a weight of 63 tons.

So this all brings us back to telling the time. As it wouldn’t have been very practical to wear a clepsydra on one’s wrist, combinations of drums and bells were used to mark the appropriate hours. The night was split into five time segments called Gengs which were equivalent to two hours. Each was named after animals in the Chinese zodiac. The first Geng came at dusk, and from 7pm to 9pm it was called Xu Shi, or Dog Hour.

The second Geng, to mark when people went to sleep, was called Hai Shi or Pig Hour, and it ran from 9pm to 11pm. Zi Shi, or Rat Hour, signalled the middle of the night (11pm to 1am). The Fourth Geng was called Chou Shi, or Ox Hour (1am to 3am) and the Fifth Geng was Tiger Hour, or Yin Shi, and it ran from 3am to 5am.

The first and last of these Gengs were announced with the beating of drums followed by the striking of the bell and the gate of the city was closed and traffic was stopped as the sound of the first bell rang out each night.

Now, according to legend, some guy called Deng (sounds somewhat onomatopoeic!) tried unsuccessfully for over a year to cast the bell. On the eve of the final casting, his daughter (who was obviously lacking something in the brains department) decided to sacrifice her life in order to move the gods to bring about a perfect casting, and threw herself into the molten bronze. Her panic-stricken father could only recover a single embroidered slipper from the flames (oh yeah, right! He was able to grab a flimsy slipper from a vat of molten bronze?) The casting, though, was a success and the emperor, moved by the young girl's spirit of sacrifice, named her the "Goddess of the Golden Furnace" and built a temple in her honour near the foundry. By the ordinary people she was remembered as the "Goddess Who Cast the Bell." Just as well they hadn’t introduced the one-child policy in those days I reckon.

After the bell was installed, the chimes could be heard clearly and resonantly all across the city. But on stormy evenings, the bell was said to emit a desolate moaning sound similar to the word xie (鞋), which means "shoe" in Chinese. Recalling the old legend, mothers would comfort their children with: "Go to sleep! The Bell Tower is tolling. The Goddess Who Cast the Bell wants her embroidered slipper back." I suppose the word “Tuoxie (拖鞋)” which means slipper wouldn’t have the same ring to it?

The area around the two towers was the busy downtown district during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), full of storefronts and businesses. Apparently the street in front of the drum tower became the busiest shopping street in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties. Nowadays you can get a birds-eye view of what’s left of Beijing's famous Hutong areas made up of densely packed houses in narrow alleyways.

Apart from the electric street lighting and fast food outlets, I doubt much has changed here for many hundreds of years. Makes you wonder what on earth people did before the advent of KFC and McDonalds.

Gouloudajie station lies on lines 2/8. Take exit G and walk a couple of hundred metres southwards. Both towers are clearly to be seen on your left.