Bell and Drum Towers

Written by Sally Guo Updated Jul. 8, 2021

Beijing's Bell and Drum Towers, both as time-telling edifices (think of Big Ben in London) and as only two of a series of Imperial Palace buildings all laid out roughly in a straight line (think of the U.S. capital, with the Lincoln Memorial at one end and the U.S. Capitol building at the other, which expanse covers the Washington Mall and the Capitol Mall - the one an extension of the other - and with the towering, obelisk-like Washington Monument roughly midway between the two), cannot be properly appreciated without seeing these two structures in the larger perspective of their two original functions.

Though Beijing's Bell and Drum Towers are no longer used to tell time, they were originally created as time-telling devices. The new Drum Tower was erected in connection with the construction of the Bell Tower in CE 1420, during the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty, as part of the revamping of the Imperial Palace. These two towers, together with the Forbidden City itself, as well as Tianmen Square, form Beijing's "Capital Mall", as it were.

Add to that "Coal Hill", in fact, which was created out of the earth from the moat dug in front of the Imperial Palace complex, and which was later dubbed Coal Hill because coal reserves were piled up around the foot of the artificial hill, which, by that time, had become something of a royal park. Only an aerial view of this "Capital Mall" does justice to the planned relationship between these imperial entities, for such a view reveals the straight-line axis on which they were drawn.*

The Bell and Drum Towers are located at the north end of Dianmenwai Street in the heart of old Beijing, or Dadu, as the city was originally named when it was founded in CE 1272, during the Yuan Dynasty (CE 1279-1368). Together, these two towers once defined the skyline of Peking, as the city was known by non-Chinese outsiders. Indeed, they were once THE landmark of Peking/ Beijing.

The use of drums and bells to tell time, albeit, not time-based on an accurate rotation of the earth as we know it, dates far back into China's ancient history, as early as the Han (BCE 206 - BC 220) Dynasty. A bell announced the official commencement of the day, at which time the city's gates would be opened, while a drum marked the official end of the day when the city's gates were closed. The first astronomical clock in China was constructed in CE 1088 by Su Song and Han Gong-Lian, during the Northern Song (CE 960-1127) Dynasty. The Su Song Clock Tower, as it came to be called, was a mechanical device that employed four types of percussion instruments, two bells - one large and one small - a drum, and a gong.

This clock worked on a cam principle, whereby puppets were activated to strike the appropriate percussion instrument. Those interested in knowing the time of day by means of Su Song's clock would have to rely not only on sound but on sight as well, since the type of puppet that appeared in the tower window in order to strike the relevant percussion instrument (think of a cuckoo clock, though the cuckoo does nothing but "crow"), as well as the color of the particular puppet's dress, followed a specific scheme (there were four different types of puppets in three different "wardrobe" colors: green, purple and red). In general, the ancient Chinese bell and drum time-telling devices "chimed" every quarter of an hour.

Drum Tower

Beijing's Drum Tower was originally built in the 9th year (CE 1272) of the Zhi Yuan (CE 1264-1294) Period of the reign (CE 1260-1294) of Emperor Shizu (aka Kublai Khan) of the Yuan Dynasty. The building was known as the Qi Zheng ("Orderly Administration") Tower. This tower was eventually totally destroyed in a fire, but rebuilt under the reign (CE 1294-1307) of the next Yuan Dynasty emperor, Emperor Chengzhong, in CE 1297. However, the Drum Tower that belongs to the Bell and Drum Towers that form a part of the present-day "Capital Mall" arrangement of Beijing was totally revamped in CE 1420, as part of the construction of the Imperial Palace, under the reign (CE 1402-1424) of Emperor Yongle of the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty.

The Drum Tower was renovated again, this time in CE 1800, under the reign (CE 1735-1796) of Emperor Jiaqing of the Qing Dynasty (CE 1644-1911). In the post-Imperial era, in 1924, the name of the Drum Tower was changed to Ming-Chi ("Acknowledging Shamefulness") Tower in recognition of the many instances of humiliation that China had been subjected to by foreign powers, beginning with the humiliating invasions and territorial concessions of the so-called Opium Wars (the First Opium War was from 1839 to 1841; the Second Opium War was from 1856 to 1860), then the Eight-Power Allied Force invasion of Beijing in 1900 (the scars on the surface of the remaining original drum are sword marks that the drum received during the Chinese forces' valiant defense of the Drum Tower under the 1900 invasion), and finally, the equally humiliating treatment at the hands of the Allied powers at the end of WWI, where the 1919 Treaty of Versailles bizarrely bequeathed Germany's territorial concessions in China to Japan.

Numerous war objects that bear witness to China's humiliation during its exchanges with foreign powers, in particular, the Eight-Power Allied Force invasion of 1900, were put on public display in the Acknowledging Shamefulness Tower to remind the Chinese people of these humiliations so that they might never occur again. The Drum Tower houses a set of 25 drums in varying sizes, though today only the main drum, the largest, is original - the rest are replicas.

Bell Tower

Beijing's Bell Tower continues to play a central role in Beijing's "Old City" (the bell is still rung on auspicious occasions), which has a park-like status, the old Imperial buildings being surrounded by trees, lawns, and plazas. The Bell Tower is a strictly brick-and-stone edifice, unlike the Drum Tower, which is mainly of wood. Whereas the Drum Tower is short and squat, the Bell Tower is slender and tall.

The Bell Tower originally housed a huge cast iron bell, but because the cast iron bell did not ring as loud as was expected, it was replaced by an even larger bronze bell (its walls were over 10 inches thick) whose chimes did fulfill all expectations. In fact, the Bell Tower's bronze bell can be heard over a distance of some 20 kilometers. The "retired" cast iron bell was rehoused in the Drum Tower, where it has remained for the last 500 years.

According to legend, an official named Deng, in creating the bronze replacement bell - and being fully apprised of the expectations that were riding on this new bell - tried repeatedly to produce a bell with a clear, resonating sound, but to no avail. In the meantime, the date for delivery of the new bell was approaching. On the eve of the final casting, Deng's daughter, fearing a failure that would bring shame on the family and especially on her father, decided to sacrifice her life in an effort to move the gods to bring about perfect casting; the girl, therefore, threw herself into the molten bronze.

Needless to say, the sacrifice worked, for the resulting bell rang with unparalleled clarity and with a force that could only have been blessed by the gods. The legend goes on to say that the father, seeing his daughter jumping into the vat of molten bronze, reached out to save her, only catching the girl by the foot, but her embroidered slipper slipped off her foot and she disappeared into the molten bronze below, leaving her traumatized father holding only the slipper.

The emperor, moved by the young girl's spirit of sacrifice, gave her the posthumous title of "Goddess of the Golden Furnace", and had a temple built in her honor, near the foundry where she had perished. In folk parlance, the heroic young girl is remembered as "The Goddess Who Cast the Bell".

After the bell was installed, its chimes could be heard clearly and resonantly all across the city. On stormy evenings, however, the bell would mysteriously emit a desolate moaning sound, similar to the pronunciation of the word xie in Chinese, which means "shoe". Recalling the legend, mothers thereafter would comfort their children at bedtime with the words: "Go to sleep, dear child, the Bell Tower is tolling, The Goddess Who Cast the Bell wants her embroidered slipper back".

In 1957 both towers were granted special state protection as preservation-worthy sites of national importance. In the 1980s, following extensive restorations, the Bell and Drum Towers were opened to tourists.

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