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Music and Art

Sacred Sounds
China, <I>Yung Cheng Bell</I> (Ceremonial Bell), late 6th-5th century, B.C., bronze
zoom China, Yung Cheng Bell (Ceremonial Bell), late 6th-5th century, B.C., bronze


The world’s first bells were produced in China around 3000 B.C. These were ceramic bells, made of hardened clay. Five hundred years later, the Chinese made the first metal bells. Around 1200 B.C., they created the first bronze chime bells. These complex musical instruments were grouped into sets containing bells in a range of sizes.

Bronze bell sets were symbols of prestige, owned only by the ruling elite. Because of the status they gave their owners, such bells were regulated by laws. During China’s Bronze Age (1900-221 B.C.), bell music was played in temples during sacred rituals performed as part of elaborate political and religious ceremonies.

To give a bell the desired pitch and tone, the bell maker had to figure out the right size, shape, thickness, and proportions and then cast the bell from a high-quality alloy (mixture of metals). Chinese chime bells had no clapper, or tongue, on the inside. A set of bells was suspended from a wooden frame, and the player struck them with a mallet to make them ring.

This typical yung-cheng bell has an arched bottom, straight sides, cylindrical bosses, and a long shank (yung). When hung by its shank, the bell tilts outward, allowing the player to strike it more accurately. Accuracy was especially important with a yung-cheng bell, which emits one note when struck on the center and a different note if struck on the side.

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1. This po-cheng bell was probably among the largest in the set it belonged to. When a large bell is struck, it vibrates longer than a smaller bell would, which means its sound lasts longer.
China, Po-cheng Bell, Eastern Chou dynasty (1027-256 B.C.), bronze
2. Bosses not only decorated a bell, they also reduced nonharmonic overtones.
3. This ceramic model of a yung-cheng bell was placed in a tomb as a substitute for a more expensive bronze bell.
China, Model of a Yung-cheng Bell, Eastern Chou dynasty, stoneware


March 2007