Sonorous Bells of an Ancient Temple
The Ancient Bell Museum of the Great Bell Temple is hidden away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Enclosed by red walls and grey tiles, the museum remains tranquil and unsophisticated.
The Ancient Bell Museum of Great Bell Temple, located at the North Third Ring Road of Beijing, is hidden away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Enclosed by red walls and grey tiles, the museum is tranquil and unsophisticated. Peaceful surroundings with green pines and verdant cypresses are everywhere. In the exhibitions halls, one is greeted by various types of bells such the spectacular bianzhong ( chiming bell) from the Warring States period ( 475– 221 BC) and the magnificent Yongle Bell. Exhibits in this museum are eye- opening.
The Great Bell Temple
Bells are closely related to ancient Chinese life. They are the instruments of rites and music and a daily tool for telling time. With technological advancements, people don't rely on bells to tell time anymore and therefore bells no longer play its original role in this era. China's history in using bells goes back a long way. In primitive society, bells made of wood, bamboo or ceramics were used as basic percussive instruments for entertainment. During Shang (16th century–11th century BC) and Zhou (11th century–256 BC) dynasties, musical performances using instruments such as the bianzhong became an integral aspect of nobility.
Today, bells are hardly used. To look at the different types of bells and find out more about them, one can make a trip to this museum, previously known as Great Bell Temple. The construction of the Great Bell Temple
began in the first lunar month of 1733, and was completed in winter the following year. Originally named jueshengsi, it was visited by the Qing emperors in praying for rain. Today, a horizontal tablet carved with nine dragons and calligraphy work chijian jueshengsi (“conferred construction of jueshengsi”) written by Emperor Yongzheng (reign: 1722–1735) on top of the gate to the monastery can still be seen. The main attraction at the temple is the Yongle Bell, made during Yongle period (1403–1424) of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). It was moved to the Great Bell Temple from the Imperial Longevity Temple during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). At the time, commoners felt that the name dazhongsi, or Great Bell Temple, was more intuitive.
During the Qing Dynasty, the emperors visited the Great Bell Temple several times and issued an edict to pray for rain. Each time a national celebration or Buddhist event was held, the Yongle Bell at the temple would be struck. The bell has a history of nearly 600 years, but the sound from the bell is still mellow, loud and penetrable, travelling up to forty or fifty kilometres with its sonorous peal. Foundry techniques used by ancient people are still impressive.
In 1985, the temple was converted to the Ancient Bell Museum of Big Bell Temple. It is the only bell-themed museum in China that collects, exhibits and conducts research on ancient bells.
Exhibits in the Museum
The exhibition halls in the museum are simple, with many lively images and detailed text explaining the long history of ancient bells. The great Buddha hall is an exhibition area that showcases material objects such as the replica of Bianzhong of Marquis Yi of Zeng. Even though it's a replica, the model is exquisite. Famous for its broad range and accuracy, the original bianzhong was excavated in Hubei province in 1978. China's greatest achievement in music is the system of rites and music with a strict standard based on hierarchy. Bells are used as instruments in musical performance.
Bianzhong was popular during the Spring and Autumn (770–476 BC) and Warring States Period. Along with other musical instruments, the bianzhong was one of the accompanying burial items for the royal family. The Bianzhong of the Marquis Yi of Zeng became one of the first important cultural relics prohibited from leaving the country for overseas exhibitions.
The hall of Avalokitesvara Buddhisatva exhibits hundred of Buddhist, Taoist and Vajra bells, most of which are originals from ancient temples from all over China. The most famous bell in this hall is the Qianlong Bronze Bell cast during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (reign: 1736–1796). The bell has no characters on it but features trigram symbols and ornate dragon carvings, reflecting the prosperous Qing Dynasty.
Housed in the Great Bell Hall, the magnificent Yongle Bell measures 6.75 metres in height, weighs 46.5 tons and has a bottom diameter of 3.3 metres. According to historical records, emperors of the Qing Dynasty visited the temple to strike the Yongle Bell 108 times to pray for rain. Nowadays, to protect the relic, the bell is struck only on Lunar New Year's Eve. Visitors are welcome to worship on other days. The mechanics principle behind the suspension of the bell is special. The bell is suspended on the beam with a cotter pin 6.6 centimetres wide and 14.3 centimetres long. More than 100 scriptures and mantras in Chinese and Sanskrit are carved on the outer and inner parts of the bell, with 230,000 words.
History of the Yongle Bell
The Yongle Bell was originally placed in the Imperial Longevity Temple, located west of Beijing. This temple was a prestigious royal temple during the Ming and Qing dynasties. In 1743, the Yongle Bell was moved to jueshengsi and has stayed there ever since. Moving the bulky Yongle Bell required effort. During the winter journey, the movers had to create an ice road with well water, place logs below and roll the Yongle Bell towards the destination. At jueshengsi, the movers rolled the bell onto a mound, then worked on the frame. Finally, the mound was dug out and the bell suspended.
The history of Yongle Bell dates back to the Ming Dynasty. After the demise of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (reign: 1368–1398), his grandson Zhu Yunwen succeeded to the throne. There was a conflict of interest which later gave rise to plans led by Zhu Di of Yan State to rid the emperor of corrupt ministers. Eventually, Emperor Zhu Yunwen (reign: 1398–1402) was overthrown by Zhu Di, who became the third emperor of Ming Dynasty. Soon afterwards, Emperor Zhu Di (reign: 1402–1424), also known as Emperor Yongle, moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. To commemorate triumph in battle and declaring power, he gave orders for the Yongle Bell to be cast.
Aside from the well-known Yongle Bell, the museum also boasts a collection of over 400 pieces of cultural relics related to bells. One of them is a treasured European carillon and remains the only one of its kind in China. A carillon is a large musical instrument made up of a keyboard and pedal that uses metal wires and bronze. The carillon and bianzhong are similar but each has its own unique features developed from different backgrounds.
Walking through carved beams and painted rafters of the museum and wandering among the exquisite ancient bells, the sounds of bells bring each visitor on a journey back in time to catch a glimpse of ancient history.