Rechiming China's Legendary Bells
The Zenghouyi chime bells, with the history of more than 2,400 years ago, were unearthed in 1978 in Hubei province. This was also the year that marked the start of a new chapter in China's history.
The Zenghouyi Chime Bells in the tomb in 1978. [File photo provided by Hubei Provincial Museum]
Archeologists recorded the information of the ancient bells. [File photo provided by Hubei Provincial Museum]
The Zenghouyi Chime Bells showcase in Hubei Provincial Museum. [Photo provided by Hubei Provincial Museum]
The curator of San Francisco's Asian Art Museum Doctor Jay Xu says the bell was the most sophisticated musical instrument humankind had ever produced by that time. It was absolutely the most sophisticated musical instrument in the entire world, not only in China. The discovery of Zenghouyi bell was not one of the most important archeological discoveries in China so far, it is the most important one.
Sculpture of the Zenghouyi Chime Bells: the bronze warrior holding the wooden tire. [Photo provided by Hubei Provincial Museum]
The discovery of the bells revealed a design that had been lost to history. Their unique oval design means that each bell can produce two different tones depending on where it's struck. The whole set has a range of five octaves with a complete 12-tone scale, which is extraordinary given that the bells were cast over two millennia before Bach's authoritative work on tonality.
Ranging from 8 inches to 5 feet in height, the 65 bells hang in three tiers from an L-shaped wooden frame, with 19 bells at the top, 33 in the middle, and 12 at the bottom. The smallest bell weighs 5 pounds, the largest about 450 pounds, for a total of 2 tons, which is equal to the weight of ten pianos.
There is a gold inscription on each bell that records historical events, musical theories, and the sound that each bell produces. There is only one bell with a flat bottom called Bo. The inscriptions on this bell reveal that they were gifts from the King of Chu state to the Marquis of Zeng State Yi.
The gold inscription on one of the bells. [Photo provided by Hubei Provincial Museum]
The Zenghouyi bells are kept in the Hubei Provincial Museum. Fang Qin, the curator of Hubei Provincial museum says the tomb of Zenghouyi is a collection of ancient instruments.
Fang Qin, the curator of Hubei Provincial Museum. [Photo provided by Hubei Provincial Museum]
“It has provided the earliest theory of Chinese music, and it's the only set of bells that portrays the musical theory of ancient China. When the Zenghouyi chime bells were unearthed, there were also other musical instruments being excavated, including stone chimes, ancient Chinese plucked zithers, traditional reed instruments, and various drums. More than 125 instruments were found, which resemble an orchestra. It was like getting a hold of a 2,400 year old encyclopedia of Chinese music, which is amazing.”
Hanging drum with colored lacquer, discovered in the eastern chamber of Zenghouyi’s tomb. The frame used to be made of thirteen boards, which has fallen into disorder at the time of unearthing. [Photo: China Plus/Wang Xiaoyu]
Bronze base of the Jiangu drum, an accessory used to support the column and fix the drum. [Photo: China Plus/ Wang Xiaoyu]
Robert Zollitsch, a German composer and producer of Chinese art music, says the tomb of a king millennia ago was usually extravagantly decorated with luxurious items. But the Zenghouyi tomb was different.
“Zenghouyi's tomb is not very big, it's not to compare with something like the Egyptian Pyramids or the Terra Cotta soldiers. Zenghouyi's tomb is not huge, but the core element in this tomb, the musical instrument and the set of bells are outstanding. The bells really can represent Chinese history. And also can represent a kind of spirit from that time. The most important thing for a king to take to his tomb is not gold or weapons, but is music.”
Robert Zollitsch, a German composer and producer of Chinese art music and his wife Gong Linna, a famous Chinese singer.[Photo provided by Gong and Luo Music Studio]
Names with the bells
Archeologist Feng Guangsheng witnessed the unearth of the Zenghouyi chime bells, he was also the formal vice-curator of Hubei Provincial Museum. [Photo courtesy of Feng Guangsheng]
In 1978, Feng Guangsheng was only a 24-year-old music major who had graduated and was working at a cultural organization in a small county in Hubei province. When the archeological site where the Zenghouyi bells would be discovered needed more helping hands with the excavation, he volunteered his help and stepped on the path of archeology. He witnessed the excavation of the Zenghouyi chime bells in 1978, one year after the conclusion of the ten-year Cultural Revolution of China.
Feng Guangsheng was playing the Zenghouyi Chime Bells in August, 1978. [Photo courtesy of Feng Guangsheng]
Because he lacked training in archeological research, Feng Guangsheng was mainly responsible for preparing documentation at the excavation site. He recorded the excavation process, and what archeologists learned as the dig progressed.
Luckily, Feng was proved to attend the sound measurement of Zenghouyi Chime Bell and had chance to touch the bell closely.
Feng said once he laid eyes on the Zenghouyi bells, his future path was set.
“From knowing nothing to being increasingly interested in this ancient instrument, I stepped into a journey of archeology. From being curious to being impressed, they have become increasingly sacred to me in my heart over the past 40 years.”
Liao Guiying was testing the sound of replica of Zenghouyi Chime Bell in 1997. [Photo courtesy of Liao Guiying]
Liao Guiying is the chief curator of the Chang Foundation Museum in Taiwan, she contributed to the birth of first complete replication of Zenghouyi Chime Bell.
“I saw the replica of the Zenghouyi Bells. Although our archeological expertise helped us to understand this ancient instrument, I was still impressed by its massiveness, and also the fact that it could still produce music. Therefore, I got the idea of having a replica of the Zenghouyi Bells in Taiwan. I felt that being of Chinese descent, the art and history passed down from our ancestors was something engraved deeply in my heart. It's simply a delight to see that we are in possession of an orchestra from two millennia ago.”
The replica of Zenghouyi Chime Bell was exhibited in the Chang Foundation Museum in Taipei in 1997.[Photo courtesy of Liao Guiying]
Liao and her team also contributed to promote classical Chinese instruments through exhibitions and workshops to help build up public excitement in Taiwan.
Feng Guangsheng gave lecture in the “Seed Workshop” in Taipei to local instrumentalists in 1998. [Photo courtesy of Feng Guangsheng]
Feng Guangsheng, who was the vice-curator of Hubei Provincial Museum, was invited to Taiwan to train local instrumentalists of chime bells.
Professor Tan Jun from Wuhan Conservatory of Music [Photo courtesy of Tan Jun]
Tan Jun is a professor from the Wuhan Conservatory of Music. His story with the Zenghouyi Chime bell started in 1997.
“That was my first time being that close to the Zenghouyi bells, in the Symphony 1997. When the composer Tan Dun came to the Wu-han Conservatory of Music in 1996, I knew nothing about him. In 1997, he came again with lots of mallets for chime bells from Japan to compose the melody, but all of them broke after striking the bells. Naturally, he started to worry. It was at that time when my mentor recommended my expertise, as I had been doing research on chime bells mallets. When I offered the mallets that I had made, Tan Dun was ecstatic and said that they were exactly what he wanted. So he invited me to perform in Symphony 1997.”
By then, Tan Jun had been studying chime bells for twelve years, and had been toiling away at making mallets out of different kinds of materials.
Tan Jun rehearsed with the students of Chime Bells Youth Orchestra. [Photo courtesy of Tan Jun]
In 2002, Tan Jun started tutorial courses for chime bells at the Wuhan Conservatory. He started off with 16 students in his first class. In 2015, he established the Chime Bells Youth Orchestra. He says every time the instrument is played, it is a re-creation of music.
“Those solid relics, as long as they were not broken by nature or man-made sabotage, can continue to be passed down to future generations. But music relics are different. Two thousand five hundred years ago, there were no recorders, and even decades ago, these devices were rarely seen in China. Otherwise ancient music could have been preserved up to today. Moreover, no musical scores for the bells had survived. Today's playing of chime bells is a re-creation of this music.”
Students from Chime Bells Youth Orchestra were playing chime bell in a concert. [Photo courtesy of Tan Jun]