Bells: luxury items since the Bronze Age

On 10 September 2019, by Anne Foster

This huang zhong, or shiny bell, was made for an orchestra under the reign of Kangxi to celebrate military victories and ritual events.

China, Kangxi period (1662-1722), gilt bronze bianzhong ritual bell decorated in relief with two five-clawed dragons above foaming waves chasing a flaming pearl, alternating with two cartouches enclosing the inscriptions “Huang Zhong” and “Kangxi Bing Shen Nian Zhi”, corresponding to the year 1716, h. 20.9 cm.
Estimate: €200,000/300,000

In 1759, a farmer in Jiangxi province found eleven bronze bells, which he gave to the governor of the province. He in turn gave them as a gift to Qianlong, who put them in a pavilion renamed Yungu Tang (“Rhyming-the-Old Hall”) located in Xiyuan Park close to the old Summer Palace. Known as the “Zhou bells”, they featured prominently in the treatise on Chinese musicology published by the emperor, a work started by his grandfather. An orchestra had to have a dozen bells, so Qianlong had a twelfth one cast and wrote poems to their glory. Like Kangxi, the emperor was carrying on a tradition that had emerged in the Warring States period in the fifth century before our era. As for the art of bell-making, it dated back to the Neolithic period (ca. 6,000-1,900 BCE). Music expresses joy: “joy” and “music” are written the same way in Chinese. The rites codifying harmony must connect man with his environment. Thus, bell orchestras came out to ring in the New Year and accompany the emperor during the Ploughing Festival, banquets and military victories. Their use had been regulated since the Zhou dynasty (eleventh to third century BCE): they were hung and struck with a mallet in two places depending on the desired sound. Instruments reserved for imperial use were decorated with dragons, symbolising Chinese civilisation’s continuity. The same iconographic repertory was used during the Ming dynasty on bells similar to the one offered in December. Several Ming and Qing examples occasionally turn up at auctions in Europe and the United States, and Chinese and American public collections possess more or less complete carillons.
The emperors would sometimes give temples or officials a bell to ring during rites and banquets. They bear witness to China’s long history, as illustrated by the dragon and the many similar examples found in tombs – a brilliant note that will delight collectors.

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