Chinese Bronze Bell

Bronze bell, found in Shanxi province, China
500–400 BC

The choice of music that was played at the ceremony marking Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China in 1997 was, on both sides, entirely characteristic. The British played the Last Post on a bugle; the Chinese performed a specially composed piece of music called Heaven, Earth, Mankind, part of it on a set of ancient bells. On the European side, a solo instrument connected with war and conflict; on the Chinese side, a group of instruments playing in harmony. With a little stretch of the imagination, you can see in that choice of instruments two distinct and determinant views of how society works. Bells in China go back thousands of years, and they carry great resonances for Chinese people – so perhaps this was the Chinese leaders’ way of reminding Hong Kong of the cultural and political traditions it would be rejoining. This bell is a contemporary of the ones played at that ceremony, about 2,500 years old, and through this bell I’m going to be exploring Confucius’s ideas of how a society can function in harmony.

When this bell was first played, in the fifth century BC, China was in military and political disarray, essentially just a collection of competing fiefdoms, all battling for supremacy. There was widespread social instability, but also lively intellectual debate about what an ideal society ought to be, and by far the most famous and influential contributor to these debates was Confucius. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the insecurity of the times, he placed a very high value on peace and harmony. We’re told that one of his celebrated sayings was: ‘Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.’ For Confucius, music was a metaphor of a harmonious society, and its performance could actually help bring that better society about. It’s a view of the world that still resonates strongly in China today, and it ties in with the story of our bell.

As it’s a museum piece, and of such age, we don’t play our bell very often. But it is large and very handsome to look at. It’s about the size of a beer barrel, and not circular, but elliptical. It reminds me of nothing so much as an outsized Swiss cowbell. It’s covered in decoration, elaborate strapwork that swirls all over, round medallions with dragons’ heads swallowing geese and, at the top, two magnificent standing dragons holding the handle from which the bell would have hung. This was a bell that was made not only to be heard but also to be seen.

Our bell would have originally been part of a set owned by a warlord or by a powerful official in one of the numerous small states. Owning a set of bells – and, even more, being able to afford the orchestra to play them – was a visible, and of course audible, sign of great wealth and status. The principal message of our bell would have been about its owner’s power, but it would also have represented that owner’s view of society and the cosmos.

Confucius spoke a great deal about music, which he saw as playing a central part in the education of the individual – and indeed in the shaping of the state. At the core of the teachings of Confucius was the fundamental need for every individual to understand and accept their place in the world. It was perhaps in this spirit that sets of Chinese bells took on such philosophical importance – reflecting the diversity but also the harmony that’s created when each different bell is perfectly tuned and played in its proper sequence. Isabel Hilton, a writer and expert on modern China, elaborates:

Harmony was very important to Confucius. The way Confucius conceived of it was that he had an idea that men could best be governed by virtue, by benevolence, by righteousness; and if the leader exemplified those virtues, then so would his people. By cultivating these virtues, you did away with the need for punishment and law, because you ruled by a sense of what was appropriate – and by shame. The application of all these ideas produces a harmonious society.

So a harmonious society is the consequence of virtuous individuals working together in a complementary way. It’s a short step for a philosopher to see, in a set of highly tuned, graduated bells, a metaphor for this ideal society – everyone in their allotted place, making music with their fellows.

Bells in China go back about 5,000 years. The earliest would have been simple hand bells, with a clapper inside to produce the sound. Later the clapper was abandoned, and bronze bells were played by being hit on the outside with a hammer. Our single bell would once have been part of a set of either nine or fourteen. Each would have been a different size, and would produce two different tones, depending on where it was struck. The percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie is well aware of the power of bells:

Every single bell has its own unique sound. It can be a very tiny sound that you’ve really got to pay attention to, or it can just be a huge, huge resonant experience that a whole community can register. I remember in the early years when I went to China, they had a whole rack of bells that decorated the back of the stage, and of course I couldn’t help but go up to them and just admire the craftsmanship that went into this structure. I did ask if I could strike one, and I was given this long wooden pole, and the whole body has to be used in order to create a sound, and the right striking point is particularly important. There was this immense respect as to what actually I was going to do. It wasn’t just a case of, ‘Well, hit the bell,’ or something. This was something that I wanted to really treasure, and it was an incredible experience to just create that one strike, and then to really live the sound experience of the resonance after that strike.

By European standards, these ancient Chinese bronze bells are enormous. Nothing on this scale would be cast in Europe until the Middle Ages, more than 1,500 years later. But the role of bells in China could go far beyond the musical. To produce perfect tones they had to have absolutely standardized shapes, and the consistency of these shapes meant that the bells could also be used to measure standard volumes. And as the amount of bronze in each one was also carefully controlled, they could just as well provide standard weights. So a set of bells in ancient China could also serve as a sort of local weights and measures office, bringing harmony to commerce as well as society.

Intriguingly, bells also played a major role in the etiquette of war. The Chinese held that no attack could be considered fair and above board without the sounding of bells or drums; from then on you could honourably fight without restraint. But, more commonly, the bells were used for rituals and entertainments at court. Played at grand occasions, banquets and sacrificial ceremonies, the complex music of the bells marked the rhythm of court lives.

The bells, and the ancient methods of playing them, travelled well beyond the boundaries of China, and the closest surviving form of this ancient music is today found not in China but in the Korean court music that originated in the twelfth century and is still played in Korea now.

In Europe we rarely listen to music that is more than 500 or 600 years old, but the music of the ancient Chinese bells has been resonating harmoniously for more than 2,500 years, symbolizing not only the sound of an era but the underlying political ideals of an ancient society and its modern successors. It’s a Confucian principle that China once again finds very appealing today – although that hasn’t always been the case. Here is Isabel Hilton again:

Confucianism was really the soul of the Chinese state for the best part of 2,000 years, but in the early twentieth century it was very strongly criticized by the modernizers, the revolutionaries, the people who blamed Confucianism for the decline of China in the previous 200 years, and it fell out of favour. But Confucianism never really went away. Curiously, harmonious society is what we hear today on the lips of Chinese leaders. What the leadership today wants is a society that is more content, in which people are content with their station, so no more class struggle; in which the leaders are seen to embody virtue as in the old Confucian idea. It is their virtue that makes people accept their right to rule. So we’ve seen the taking of this very old idea of harmony, and we’re seeing it in a modern form to justify a static political system, a system in which the right to rule is not questioned.

And bells are still going strong. The ancient bells used for the 1997 Hong Kong ceremony were played again at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. And Confucius is now, it seems, the flavour of the decade. He has his own $25 million biopic, a bestselling book, a TV series and a hundred-part animated series on his teachings. The age of Confucius has come again.

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