An Extremely Rare Imperial Gilt-Bronze Bell
Rosemary Scott, Senior International Academic Consultant Asian Art
This magnificent and rare gilt-bronze bell bears an inscription dating it to the eighth year of the Qianlong reign, equivalent to AD 1743, and a further inscription identifying the tone of the bell. Bells of this type were known as bianzhong and were usually assembled in sets of sixteen, providing twelve musical tones with four repeated notes in lower or higher octaves. The twelve Chinese musical tones are arranged in the following sequence: Huangzhong (1st), Dalü (2nd), Taicu (3rd), Jiazhong (4th), Guxi (5th), Zhonglü (6th), Ruibin (7th), Linzhong (8th), Yize (9th), Nanlü (10th), Wuyi (11th), and Yingzhong (12th). In Chinese musicology, the twelve main tones alternately provide yang, positive, and yin, negative, notes. The four repeated bells of lower octaves, making up the total of sixteen, are Bei Yize, Bei Nanlü, Bei Wuyi, and Bei Yingzhong. The current bell bears an inscription identifying it as Bei Nanlü. The sixteen bells were arranged in accordance with the musical note of the individual bells, which was determined by their thickness. The height of the bells in a set did not vary, only the thickness. The current bell was one of the heaviest and would have been hung from the lower horizontal beam of the frame, third from the right. The bells were cast from bronze then hand finished to achieve precisely the right pitch before being gilded. While a small number of such bells are known, the heavier bei bells are very rare.
Bianzhong bells were essential in conducting Confucian rituals at the Imperial altars and other state ceremonies, including ascension ceremonies when a new emperor took the throne, formal banquets and other court assemblies, and during processions of the Imperial Guard. It may be significant that the current bell is dated to the eighth year of Qianlong, 1743, since it was in this year that the Qianlong Emperor made his first ‘Northern Tour’ to visit the ancestral tombs in Mukden (modern day Shenyang in Liaoning province). Undoubtedly, formal music would have been required for the rituals performed in honour of the imperial ancestors. This tour, which lasted 107 days, was very important to the Qianlong Emperor, and he commemorated it by writing Ode to Mukden in the classical Chinese fu style. The ode was originally written in Chinese as Yuzhi Shengjing fu and was later translated into Manchu as Han-i araha Mukden-i fu (or fujurun) bithe. The Emperor would have wished to have ritual accoutrements of the highest quality for use in the ceremonies conducted during the tour.
Sets of bells were part of a group of musical instruments that were required by court protocol to play the dignified music which formed an important part of significant occasions. This music was divided into two types and played by two sets of musicians. One was the Zhonghe shaoyue, which was known as the Eight Tones, since the sixteen types of musical instrument that took part were made from eight different materials - metal, stone, silk, bamboo, gourds, pottery, leather and wood. The Zhonghe shaoyue musicians and their instruments were usually placed within the area in which the ceremony was taking place. Zhonghe shaoyue music could also include singers. The frame from which the bells hung was placed to one side, and a frame from which hung sixteen jade bianqing chiming stones was placed on the other. The second group of musicians was associated with Danbi dayue music and they were usually stationed within an appropriate gate. No singers accompanied Danbi dayue musicians.
Spectacular bells, like the current example, would have been suspended in two tiers of eight, attached to a tall lacquered wooden frame, and were part of the assemblages required on certain formal occasions at court. The frame holding the bells was usually decorated at either end of the top horizontal beam with a dragon, while the vertical poles of the frame stood on felines. A set of these bells, along with a set of chiming stones, is depicted in a court painting of 1754 attributed to Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766 Lang Shining) entitled, Imperial Banquet in Wanshu Garden, (illustrated by Chuimei Ho and B. Bronson, Splendors of China's Forbidden City, Chicago, 2004, p. 52, pl. 42). The Wanshu Garden was in the imperial palace at Chengde, Hebei province, and the banquet depicted in the painting was for the leaders of the Torgut Mongols. Another set of such bells can also be seen on the terrace in front of the Taihe dian (Hall of Supreme Harmony) in the Forbidden City, Beijing, in a scroll painting depicting the wedding of the Guangxu Emperor in 1889 (illustrated in Daily Life in the Forbidden City, Wan Yi, Wang Shuqing and Lu Yanzhen (eds.) Rosemary Scott and Erica Shipley (trans.), Viking, Harmondsworth, England, 1988, pp. 46-7, pl. 61).
A similar set of sixteen bells dating to the Qianlong reign and preserved in the Forbidden City, Beijing, is illustrated in Daily Life in the Forbidden City, op. cit., p. 39, pl. 43. Another set of sixteen Qianlong bells, decorated with trigrams, is preserved in the Confucian Temple, Beijing (illustrated by Bruce Doar in ‘The Preservation of Beijing’s Confucian Temple’, Orientations, vol. 26, July/August 1995, p. 63). 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, which prevailed until the early 20th century (see Splendors of China's Forbidden City, op. cit., p. 52). A bell of dragon design, closely related to that of the current bell, also dated to the 8th year of the Qianlong reign (AD 1743) but of Zhonglü, 6th, tone, was sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 27 May 2008, lot 1540 (fig.1). Another Qianlong bell with dragon decoration, again dated to 1743, but of Nanlü, 10th tone, was sold by Christie’s Hong Kong, 3 June, 2015, lot 3119. Two further comparable dragon-decorated bells, dated to 1744, are in the Palace of Fontainebleau, illustrated in Le Musée chinois de I'impératrice Eugénie, Paris, 1994, p. 47 fig. 34. From the illustration, these bells appear to be incised with the characters, Nanlü, the 10th tone, and Yingzhong, the 12th tone. On the Fontainebleau bells the characters denoting their musical tones are rendered intaglio, as on the current bell, rather than cast in relief, as on the example sold by Christie’s Hong Kong in 2015.
Two different versions of the bianzhong bells appear to have been cast in 1743. The larger version (height: 27.3 cm.), represented by the current bell, has particularly crisply cast decoration, which includes two narrow bands of classic scrolls. Each of the inscription plaques stands on a double lotus stand, as well as being framed by clouds, and has a single disc below each plaque in the lowest register of the decoration. The smaller version (height: 21 cm.) has fewer minor bands in the design, only a simple outline on the inscription plaques and eight discs, alternating with clouds, in the lowest register of the decoration. In the case of both the current 1743 bell and the smaller 1743 bell sold by Christie’s in 2015, the loop on the top of the bell – from which it would have been suspended on a frame – is cast in the shape of a dragon, depicted with a head at either end. This dragon is Pulao, one of the nine sons of the dragon, who was believed to be quite small in size but with a roar that could shake heaven and earth. Pulao was believed to roar particularly loudly when he saw a whale, and thus the instrument used to strike the bells is often shaped like a whale to suggest the loudest sound.
A set of sixteen gold bells bearing the marks ‘Qianlong wushiwu nianzhi’ (made in 55th year of Qianlong reign, equivalent to AD 1790), is also preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing (illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum – 57 - Treasures of Imperial Court, Hong Kong, 2004, pp. 6-7, no. 5.). This gold set was given to the Qianlong Emperor by officials in celebration of his eightieth birthday. Being gold, rather than gilded bronze, they would not have produced clear notes when struck and were thus symbolic and for display, rather than for musical use in ritual like the current bell. It appears that the last Qing emperor, Puyi, used these gold bells as lien against a loan from Beijing's Yanyue Bank, but they were returned to the Palace in 1949 (discussed ibid, p. 6).
The current bell was once in the impressive and eclectic collection of the famous American businessman William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951). A man of indomitable energy and determination, Hearst became both a major, and extremely influential, publisher and the owner of an art collection of immense size and scope. Indeed, according to one of Hearst’s obituaries, during the 1920s and 1930s his purchases accounted for some twenty-five percent of the international art market. Hearst kept much of the collection at Hearst Castle, San Simeon, California. Following the death of his mother in 1919, William Randolph Hearst inherited thousands of acres of land in the San Simeon area, and in the succeeding years he purchased more land, which eventually extended to 250,000 acres. He worked with the architect Julia Morgan (1872-1957) to create a retreat, which he named La Cuesta Encantada (Enchanted Hill). This retreat came to comprise some 165 rooms as well as 123 acres of gardens, terraces walkways and pools. It was also designed to showcase Hearst’s remarkable collection of art. Although Hearst had to leave La Cuesta Encantada in 1947, before it was finally completed, due to ill health, the collection remained at San Simeon, and much of it can still be seen there today.
On 5th February, 1921, the current bell was offered for sale by one of the most famous Asian art dealers of the day, Sadajiro Yamanaka (1866-1936), in a sale at the American Art Galleries, New York entitled ‘The Notable Yamanaka Collection of Artistic Oriental Objects and Decorative Art’, where it was listed as lot 579. Bought by Hearst, records show that the bell was sent to San Simeon on 3rd May 1921. After the death of William Randolph Hearst in 1951 the bell was stored with other items from the collection, but on 9th January, 1961, it was purchased by Hearst’s former daughter-in-law Mrs. Blanche Wilbur Hill, and passed by descent within the family.
The Qianlong Emperor is regarded by many scholars as the greatest of all the Chinese Imperial collectors, and it is perhaps fitting that this rare and magnificent bell should have been acquired by William Randolph Hearst - one of the greatest American collectors of the 20th century.