The present example belongs to the same group as the bell, cast with the characters, zhonglu denoting the 6th tone, sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 27 May 2008, lot 1540 (fig. 1). The tradition for these bells cast with dragons on the exterior was established as early as the Kangxi 54th year (1715) as exemplified by two similar bells from the Yousaian Collection, sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 27 May 2009, lot 1818.
Bells of this type were known as bianzhong and were assembled in graduated sets of sixteen, providing twelve musical tones with the four repeated notes in lower or higher octaves. The twelve Chinese musical tones are arranged in the following sequence: Huangzhong (1st), Dalu (2nd), Taicu (3rd), Jiazhong (4th), Guxi (5th), Zhonglu (6th), Ruibin (7th), Lingzhong (8th), Yize (9th), Nanlu (10th, as cast on the present bell), Wushe (11th), and Yingzhong (12th). Bells of this type were 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. These bells were arranged in accordance with the thickness of their casting, and which also determined their respective musical note. A set of sixteen is illustrated in Life in the Forbidden City of Qing Dynasty, The Forbidden City Publishing House, 2007, p. 50, no. 50.
Bianzhong were essential in ritual ceremonies at the Imperial altars, formal banquets and during processions. It has been noted that in 1741, Qianlong set up a Music Division for court music and the specified melodies of his choice for the various court functions which prevailed into the early 20th century, op. cit., The Field Museum, p.52.
A set of bells bearing the marks of Qianlong wushiwu nianzhi, made in 55th year of Qianlong reign (1790), is in the Beijing Palace Museum collection. Two of these, denoting the musical note Taicu (3rd tone) and Jiazhong (4th tone) are illustrated in Treasures of Imperial Court, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Hong Kong, 2004, pp. 6-7, no. 5. The Palace Museum examples are made of solid gold, similar to an earlier set that was cast in the Kangxi reign. The Qianlong set was given to the Emperor by officials in celebration of the Emperor's eightieth birthday. It has been noted that the last Qing emperor, Puyi, in order to raise funds used these bells as collateral against a loan from Beijing's Yanyue Bank but they were returned to the Palace in 1949, ibid, p. 6.
Two comparable dragon-decorated bells, dated to 1744 and cast with additional classic scroll bands between the dragons, are in the Palace of Fountainebleau, illustrated in Le Musee chinois de I'imperatrice Eugenie, 1994, p. 47 fig. 34. From the illustration, these bells appear to be incised with the characters, Nanlu, the 10th musical note as on the present example, and Yingzhong, the 12th note. The Fountainebleau bells are more likely to have belonged to a series different to the present example as they are cast with angular shoulders and their musical notes are incised, rather than cast as on the present bell. It is interesting to note that a drawing of a similar bell designed with a dragon, appeared in the Illustrated London News of 13 April 1861.
The known Kangxi examples are designed around the exterior with trigrams rather than decorated with dragons as on the present bell. There are two groups of five dated to the Kangxi period from the C.Ruxton and Audrey B. Love collection, sold at Christie's New York, 20 October 2004, lots 455 and 456. The first, with an inscription dated to the 52nd year of Kangxi (1713); bearing the 7th, 8th, 10th, 11th and 12th tone respectively. The second group dated to the 54th year of Kangxi (1715); bearing the 5th, 6th, 10th, 11th and 12th tone respectively. Another wushi (11th) tone bell from the 52nd year of the Kangxi period from the Lord and Lady Hesketh collection was sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 9 October 2007, lot 1327; and another wushi bell dated to the 54th year of Kangxi was sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 26 April 1999, lot 520.