Masters of Metallurgy and Music: The Ancient Bells of Xi’an

As a musician with background in physics and mathematics with new-found knowledge of ancient china, writing a reflection on the bells of Xi’an seemed a matrimonious choice. The world’s first bells produced in China during the Shang and Zhou periods mark the start of a long relationship between political authority, time and sound, symbolised by the pealing tolls of a bell tower . In reverence of this triangulation, I consider both Duke Qin’s Bronze Bells and the Xi’an Bell Tower, considering the techniques, artistry and symbolic importance to a modern observer of Ancient China.

From the Taigon Temple in 1978, archaeologists excavated 5 zhong bells and 3 Bo Bells made during the reign of Duke Wu of Qin (697-678BCE). Before discussing the importance of the bell itself, the inscription on the bells offer important confirmation of the genealogical order of the Dukes as mentioned in the Qin Li[1] and the 135 word text hints at the Qin mandate, opening with the Duke’s words “my foremost ancestors have received the heavenly mandate”[2]. Presenting the role of bells in this way invites parallels to be drawn to the stone steles as “material forms to preserve writings”[3]. The art of music and the functionality of sound bases the development of all human civilization, with importance pertaining both everyday tasks and sacred ritual: the bell tolled time for civilians but equally sang of ritual and religion in imperial context. The imperial court of Zhou Dynasty disseminated the importance of bells and musical stones, first introducing the association of music and political hierarchy. Comparably to how we can paint calligraphy as a unifier of China, bells too symbolise the importance of harmony through music. Bells were even seen to bring harmony to agricultural endeavour, arising from the similar pronunciation of zhong (bell) and zhong (cultivate)[4].  After the Tang Dynasty, bells embodied a ritualistic role, particularly in Buddhist religion[5]. Ledderose (2001)[6] deems bronzeware as the “most impressive and fascinating material remains surviving from Chinese Antiquity” and while the author talks of the ‘modular technical system’ by which items are made, he fails to fully capture the technical erudition of bell manufacture uncovered by researchers in 1977[7] . It was learnt the bells rung differently when struck on the side and centre with the difference in pitch always a third, intervals not recognized as harmonic in Europe until the 12th Century. Only the application of modern day physics and the mathematics of harmonic motion reveals the depth of the contemporaneous craftsman’s precision and cleverness in the light of the dual-pitch design, melding musicality and metallurgy. When a bell is struck, the relative strength of partial frequencies constitutes the sound’s tonal quality, just as wavelengths comprise colour of light. Distinctly to strings, bells display complex acoustical dynamics where the thickness and elasticity of material determines tone. Striking each bell zone (gu and sui) causes vibrations to converge at certain points, called nodal meridians[8]. As Shen (1987) stipulates, “neither the concave rim design nor the precision in identifying the convergence of nodal lines could have been accidental”[9].  The mei nipples seen on the bells  also go beyond ornamental value by balancing the strength of the fundamental partial frequencies. I find not just the physics itself of these bells so fascinating but the clue it gives to the modern observer that the ancient Chinese must have possessed a theoretical grasp of the physics of music far beyond historians’ initial estimates. In studying such sophisticated bronzeware we garner a better understanding of the importance of metallurgy and music across culture and in advancing civilization.

The triangulation between imperial power, time and sound is exemplified by the Xi’an Bell Tower. Classifying the imposing tower as a chronographic facilitator aligns to Needham’s[10] emphasis on the political significance of time-keeping to a Chinese Emperor. While now silent and without audible aspect, the architectural monumentality, the “towering image, central location and sophisticated architecture forms”[11]  hints of the significance of the bell in ancient Chinese cities. The Tang first used the Chang’an bell (and drum) as a centralised system of public time telling, with the peals beginning and ending each day for ancient Chinese city-dwellers. Interestingly, Wu (2003) using records of Beijing’s ancient bell tower discerns sound was only sent out hourly from dusk to dawn, indicating sight and sound are somewhat “mutually exclusive”. This further confirms the role of the bell in promotion of political power and peace, to be heard at night when other more outwardly visual displays of the Emperor’s reign were unseen. The Bell Tower remains an important monument in modern Xi’an and consequently, deals with the tribulations of modern life. The role of traffic[12] and the metro[13] in inducing potentially destablising micro-vibrations has been feverishly studied in recent years, and shares insight from a personal visit to the Xi’an metro depot, where the impact of new lines spanning the city is presented. Such confluence of old and new engineering once again heralds to the harmonious preservation of ancient culture.

To conclude, I consider both the Duke of Qin bells and the Xi’an Bell Tower as reverent examples of the societal sophistication of Ancient Chinese Civilisations, telling the story of emperor and civilian alike through the role of music and sound. The marriage of metallurgy and musicality represents the technological advancement of ancient civilisation beyond its contemporaries in creation of dual-pitch design but we can also identify a second duality in the promotion of religion and political authority through the peals of ancient Xi’an bells.


[1] Chang, K. C., Xu, P., Lu, L., & Pingfang, X. (2005). The formation of Chinese civilization: an archaeological perspective. Yale University Press.

[2] Portal, J (2007). The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army. Harvard University Press

[3] Lu Yang Lecture, 13th November 2018, Writing Calligraphy and Cultural Memory in Traditional China: The Story of the Forest of the Steles

[4] Explanation and Study of Principles of Composition of Characters, Xu Shen

[5]The role of bells in Tang Buddhism is evinced by the exposition of Buddhist celebrations by Daoist priest Fu Yi presented in the 620s: “strike Chinese bells and gather together”  quoted in Lewis, M. E. (2009). China’s Cosmopolitan Empire, Harvard University Press

[6] Ledderose, L. (2001). Ten Thousand Things: Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art, Princeton University Press, Chapter 2 on Bronze Ware and Chapter 3 on the Qin Terracotta Warriors

[7] Huang Xiang-peng, Lu Ji, Wang Xiang, Gu Bo-bao and their colleague, Shaanxi Province

[8] Shen, S. (1987). Acoustics of ancient Chinese bells. Scientific American256(4), 104-111.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Needham, J. (1974). Science and Civilisation in China: Historical Survey (Vol. 1-7). Cambridge University Press.

[11] Hung, Wu. “Monumentality ofTime: Giant Clocks, the Drum Tower, the Clock Tower.” (2003).

[12] Meng, Z., Chang, Y., Song, L., & Yuan, J. (2009). The Effects of Micro-Vibration Excited by Traffic Vehicles on Xi’an Bell Tower. In International Conference on Transportation Engineering 2009 (pp. 37-42).

[13] Yong-sheng, L. E. I. (2010). Research on protective measures of City Wall and Bell Tower due to underneath crossing Xi’an Metro Line No. 2 [J]. Rock and Soil Mechanics31(1), 223-236.