Friday Fave: Chinese Bells

Bell; China, Eastern Zhou dynasty, ca. 5th century BCE; bronze; Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, S1987.285
Bell; China, Eastern Zhou dynasty, ca. 5th century BCE; bronze; Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, S1987.285

My favorite part of physics in high school was the physics of sound. I was part of several ensembles then and ended up studying music in college. Years later, as a graduate student, I initially learned about Chinese bronze bells through a course on the music of Asia. The following quarter, my first art history course was on Chinese bronzes. This time, I learned about the bells from an art historical perspective.

Naturally, on my first visit to the Freer and Sackler with a friend in 2011, I was delighted to see a bronze bell on display. There it was: over a foot and a half tall; lens-shaped mouth; thirty-six studs jutting out from its body; a slight patina running down the middle, hinting at age; the taotie motif—fangs, horns, and brows snaking around protruding eyes—near the lip.

Clapperless and struck instead with a mallet, these bells were an integral part of ancient court rituals. A full set consists of more than sixty bells of varying sizes. Acoustically, each bell is capable of producing two tones depending on where it is hit: Striking along the side produces one tone, and striking along the middle results in a tone three degrees—or the equivalent of a major or minor third—away. Even in modern times, bronze bells have been used in important ceremonies, such as the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, and in the theme music for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

These bells highlight China’s advanced state of technological advancement and early mastery of bronze casting: Bells of this complexity would not begin to be produced in Europe for another millennia. Bronze bells were included in the British Museum’s History of the World in 100 Objects, and the Freer|Sackler has one of the finest collections of these bells in the world.

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