Heavily cast gilt-bronze bells of this type, known as bianzhong, took their inspiration from archaic bronzes of the Western Zhou dynasty (1100-771 BC). The best known archaic prototypes are those excavated from the tomb of the Marquis Zeng, now in the Hubei Provincial Museum, illustrated by Lothar von Falkenhausen, Suspended Music: Chime Bells in the Culture of Bronze Age China, California, 1993, p. 6, fig. 1. By the Qing dynasty, the imperial court closely followed Confucian ideals as set out in ancient Chinese classics such as the Book of the Zhou, Zhou Li, which advocated that rituals should commence with music. In the Qing dynasty, bianzhong were produced for the court and became an essential part of court ritual musical instruments. They were played during ceremonies at the imperial altars (in particular, the Temple of Heaven and Temple of Agriculture) and during formal banquets and state rites.
The present bells are part of a graduated set of sixteen, each of which are cast with varied thicknesses to provide a range of twelve standard musical tones with four additional repeated notes in lower octaves. Each of the twelve principal Chinese musical characters are cast to one side of each bell, opposite the reign mark, and together they appear in the following sequence: 1st, Huangzhong; 2nd, Dalu; 3rd, Taicu; 4th, Jiazhong; 5th, Guxi; 6th, Zhonglu; 7th, Ruibin (as cast on one of the present two bells); 8th, Lingzhong; 9th, Yize; 10th, Nanlu; 11th, Wuyi; and 12th, Yingzhong (as on the second of the bells). In Chinese musicology, the twelve main tones alternately provide a Yang, positive, and Yin, negative note. The four repeated bells of lower octaves, thus making up the total of sixteen, are Pei Yize, Pei Nanlu, Pei Wuyi, Pei Yingzhong.
All sixteen bianzhong would have been suspended in two tiers of eight attached to tall wooden frames, as depicted in a court painting by Guiseppe Castiglione entitled: 'Imperial Banquet in Wanshu Garden', illustrated by Chuimei Ho and Bennet Bronson, Splendors of China's Forbidden City, The Field Museum, Chicago, p. 52, pl. 42. The bells are arranged in accordance to their thickness and respective musical tone. A carillion of sixteen bells is illustrated in Life in the Forbidden City of Qing Dynasty, The Forbidden City Publishing House, 2007, p. 50, no. 50.
A number of Kangxi bells designed with trigrams on the exterior are dated to the 52nd year of the Emperor (1713) and 54th year have appeared at auctions over the last hundred years. A number of these are reputed to have been removed from either the Yuanmingyuan in 1860 or the Temple of Agriculture during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The present bells were sold as part of the collection of Thomas B. Clarke which took place at the American Art Galleries on 8 January 1925. At the time, the present owners' grandfather, Mr John Bond Trevor, purchased both bells for a total of US$1,500, a considerable sum which attracted media attention at the time.
Further research on these Kangxi ritual bells indicates that there are at least four sets of bells in private collections: two sets of which are dated to the 52nd year of Kangxi reign, and two sets dated two years later, 54th year. Aside from the present Yingzhong, there is an identical bell dated to 1715 that was sold at Nagel auction, 2 November 2006, lot 1367, and was offered at Christie's 3 December 2008, lot 2506, which when struck plays a D-sharp tone. From the known group of bells made in the 54th year of Kangxi: cf. a single bell bearing the third standard tone, Taicu, sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 17 May 1989, lot 454; a bell cast with Wuyi, 11th tone, which sounds an A-sharp tone, sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 26 April 1999, lot 520; and five bells from the Audrey Love collection were sold at Christie's New York, 20 October 2004, in a single lot 456 (the bells respectively denoting 5th, 6th, 9th, 10th tones with a low octave Pei Yingzhong).