Bells of this type were known as bianzhong and were usually 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 and as cast on the present bell), Ruibin (7th), Lingzhong (8th), Yize (9th), Nanlu (10th), Wuyi (11th), and Yingzhong (12th). The bells 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 B. Bronson, Splendors of China's Forbidden City, The Field Museum, Chicago, p. 52, pl. 42. The bells were arranged in accordance to their thickness (the size of the bells do not vary, only the thickness) and their respective musical note was determined; a set is illustrated in Life in the Forbidden City of Qing Dynasty, The Forbidden City Publishing House, 2007, p. 50, no. 50. When struck, the present bells sound the musical notes of B and C.
Bianzhong were essential in conducting Confucian ritual ceremonies at the Imperial altars, formal banquets and during processions. It has been noted that in 1741, the Qianlong Emperor set up a Music Division for court music and specified melodies of his choice for the various court functions that prevailed until the early 20th century, op. cit., The Field Museum, p.52.
The present bells are particularly unusual both for being from the same set but also for the rare dragon motif around the exterior. The only other published 'dragon' bells dated to the Kangxi period appear to be two sets of sixteen in the Palace Museum, Beijing. The first set, dated to the 52nd year of the Kangxi reign (1713), similar in form to the present pair, was included in the 2004 Chateau de Versailles exhibition, Kangxi - Empereur de Chine, 1662-1722, and illustrated in the catalogue, p. 17, no. 2. Another set, slightly more angular and also dated to the 52nd year of Kangxi, was included in the 2006 Royal Academy of Arts exhibition, China - The Three Emperors, 1662-1795 and is illustrated in the catalogue, p. 123, no. 32.
Other extant Kangxi examples are generally designed with trigrams rather than with dragons. The present bells appear to be the only examples in a private collection. A bell of very closely related 'dragon' design dated to the 8th year of the Qianlong reign, 1743 was sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 27 May 2008, lot 1540. The Qianlong bell is more rounded and is somewhat less condensed in design than on the present examples, but the depiction of the dragons and decorative bands compare very closely. Two further comparable dragon-decorated bells, dated to 1744, 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, and Yingzhong, the 12th note. The Fountainebleau bells 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, under the title 'French Spoils for China Recently Exhibited at the Palace of the Tuileries'.
A further complete carillon of 16 bells decorated with trigrams and dated to the 52nd year of Kangxi (1713), also in the Palace Museum, Beijing was included in the 1996-1997 Musee du Petit Palais exhibition, La Cite Interdite - Vie publique et privee des empereurs de Chine, 1644-1911, and illustrated in the catalogue, p. 171 no. 49. Two groups of five bells decorated with trigrams and dated to the Kangxi period from the C. Ruxton and Audrey B. Love collection, were sold at Christie's New York, 20 October 2004, lots 455 and 456. The first, with an inscription dated to the 52nd of Kangxi (1713); bearing the 7th, 8th, 10th, 11th and 12th tone respectively. The second group dates to the same year as the present bells, the 54th year of Kangxi (1715); bearing the 5th, 6th, 10th, 11th and 12th tone respectively. A ruyi (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; another ruyi bell dated to the 54th year of Kangxi was sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 26 April 1999, lot 520.
A carillon of bells bearing the marks 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; and it has been noted that the last Qing emperor, Puyi, used these bells as lien against a loan from Beijing's Yanyue Bank but they were returned to the Palace in 1949, ibid, p. 6.