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Ritual bell (the so-called Wangsun Yizhe yongzhong), approx. 550 BCE

Ritual bell (the so-called Wangsun Yizhe yongzhong)

Ritual bell (the so-called Wangsun Yizhe yongzhong), approx. 550 BCE. China. Eastern Zhou dynasty (771255 BCE). Bronze. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60S552.

What is this object?
This is a musical instrument–a bronze bell. Yong means the bell shaft; zhong means bell. The 113-character inscription on the bell indicates that it was cast on behalf of Wangsun Yizhe, a member of the ruling family of the Chu kingdom. The inscription has been linked to a similar inscription on a set of bells from a Chu tomb dating from the mid–sixth century BCE. It would seem likely that this bell was part of a set, although bells could also be solo instruments. The bell is decorated with a pattern of relief hooks derived from animal forms but fully abstracted by this point in time.

What did music sound like at this time?
Bells like these, and sets of bells like those found in the tomb of Marquis Yi (about a century later than this bell) can still emit tones. The bell would have been suspended from a cord and hung on an angle. Bells resounded by being struck, rather than by the use of a clapper inside. Bells with elliptical cross sections produced two tones, one when struck on the lip (bottom edge) near the outside, and the other struck near the center of the lip. An orchestra of 65 bells would have produced twice as many tones. By the time Marquis Yi’s bell set was produced, musicians could play twelve tone scales as well as the same number of keys or pitches. This is indicated by inscriptions on the bells indicating their pitch. The nine bosses (mei) on each section of this bell are significant. Not only were they believed to aid the resonance of the bell, but the number nine was cosmologically significant (as in nine sacred ding vessels, etc). The ancient Chinese felt that universal harmony was linked to mathematical relationships. Similarly, musical harmonies require precise intervals. The artisans who cast these bells must have perfected their craft in order to produce such minute variations.

What function did this music serve?
Music was important to ritual and leisure activities during the Zhou dynasty. Bells such as this were most likely used for ancestral banquets, courtly events and to honor important visitors. Large orchestras played a range of percussion, string, and woodwind instruments, most of which were made of wood and other perishable materials and have long since vanished. Fortunately, large sets of bronze bells were also created, and excavated examples provide insights into the complexity of Zhou music. Sets had as many as sixty-five bells, the largest more than five feet in height. Because of their elliptical circumference, each bell can produce two distinct notes when struck with a wooden mallet. The fact that Marquis Yi’s tomb contained two sets of musical instruments suggests that he enjoyed both formal music in a public setting (the kind played on the bells) and more informal music probably for personal enjoyment.

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