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In Sync: Ancient Chinese bronze bells at the Smithsonian


Keith Wilson, Curator of Ancient Chinese Art, Freer│Sackler
Janet Douglas, Head of Technical Studies, Museum Conservation Institute

Work began months ago on an exhibition dedicated to sound and music in ancient China. The initiative was inspired, in part, by the acquisition of the Paul Singer collection, which includes important musical instruments and noise makers. Focusing on bronze bells, the planned exhibition will share with the scholarly community and the general public a new understanding of ancient Chinese music based on objects discovered in controlled excavations in China and acoustical studies conducted by physicists.

In the decades since the modern discipline of archaeology was introduced to China in the 1920s, archaeologists have proven that bells were made since at least 1600 BCE, making them among the first Chinese bronze objects to be created. Scholarly study of excavated examples suggests distinct musical cultures flourished simultaneously in north and south China, and the two regions influenced one another over many centuries. This research—involving archaeologists, art historians, musicologists, material scientists, and physicists—has helped establish the date and origins of the ancient Chinese bells in Singer’s collection as well as others long displayed in the galleries of the Freer and Sackler. It also indicates that the Smithsonian’s holdings span the entire length of the Bronze Age and reflect a variety of regional types and a wide range of uses.

Clappered bell (ling) with single flange

Figure 1

Clappered bell (ling) with single flange, China, Henan province, possibly Yanshi, Late Erlitou culture, ca. 1800–1600 BCE, S1999.120.16

The earliest known examples of these noise makers were designed to hang with the opening, or mouth, downward and were suspended by a cast loop that also probably secured the clapper. These bells are not round in cross-section but instead have two long, curved faces that meet at a sharp angle. This small ling (fig. 1) was possibly a collar bell worn by a domesticated animal. Although the purpose of the projecting fin is unknown, a similar feature occurs on an example excavated at the early Bronze Age site of Erlitou, in the northern province of Henan (circa 1800–1600 BCE).

Yoke finial with rattle in the form of a bird

Figure 2

Yoke finial with rattle in the form of a bird, China, Henan province, possibly Anyang Late Shang dynasty, Anyang period, ca. 1200–1050 BCE, S2012.9.615

More elaborate rattles and other noise makers that sometimes take the form of representational sculpture (fig. 2) are associated with the introduction of wheeled transportation in China sometime before 1300 BCE. At about the same time, small bells with hollow, tubular shafts open to the inner cavity began to appear at the late Shang dynasty capital of Anyang. Resembling another example in the Singer collection (fig. 3), these bells are sometimes found in graduated sets, an indication that they probably possessed a musical function. Given the orientation of the mask design that routinely decorates their surfaces, these bells must have been played with the mouth upward and were struck on the exterior with mallets.

Small hand bell

Figure 3

Small hand bell (nao) with mask motif, China, Henan province, possibly Anyang, Late Shang dynasty, Anyang period, ca. 1300–1050 BCE, S1999.120.17

This northern tradition had parallels in south China, where bells that were intended to be suspended and others that were designed to be played with the mouth up have been found. Similar to related examples in the Sackler collection (see figs. 4 and 5), bells excavated in the middle and lower Yangzi River valley are large, heavy, and impressively decorated. During the early Bronze Age, however, these southern bells seem not to have been used melodically. They are usually found not as a set in a tomb but rather as an individual bell in a pit burial.

Bell (bo) with mask motifs and birds

Figure 4

Bell (bo) with mask motifs and birds, South China, Yangzi River valley, ca. 12th–11th century BCE, simultaneous with late Shang dynasty, Anyang period, S1987.10

Bell (nao) with mask motifs, dragons, and knobs

Figure 5

Bell (nao) with mask motifs, dragons, and knobs, South China, Yangzi River valley, ca. 12th–11th century BCE, simultaneous with late Shang dynasty, Anyang period, S1999.120.1

Scholars now believe that cultural exchange between north and south China eventually led to the emergence of tuned sets of bells. These sets were apparently intended for use in musical ensembles that also featured strings, winds, and percussion during the second half of the Zhou dynasty (770–256 BCE). One of the most impressive examples is the set of sixty-four bronze bells discovered in the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng, who died around 433 BCE and was buried near a tributary of the Yangzi River in what is now Hubei province (fig. 6). Most of the bells in the Marquis’ set were designed to be suspended mouth down from a small ring on a vertical shaft, as seen in this modern reconstruction. The set was found with the remnants of other instruments that had been crafted from more fragile materials.


Figure 6

Modern reconstruction of a bell set (bianzhong) found in the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng, Hubei Provincial Museum. Photo: Google Cultural Institute

The acoustical properties of Chinese bells have been studied by Thomas D. Rossing, formerly in the Department of Physics at Northern Illinois University (now a visiting professor at Stanford University), and Lothar von Faulkenhausen, Department of Art History at the University of California (Los Angeles), and their collaborators. Their findings are summarized in Eastern Zhou Ritual Bronzes from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, edited by Jenny So (1995).

Sound and the vibrational motion that causes it can be described by studying the distortion of a bell when it is struck. The bell metal deforms and loses energy through tiny displacements, which can be detected by holographic interferometry, a nondestructive technique that uses lasers to measure this displacement with optical precision. Holographic interferometry can also be used to generate contour maps of the complex pattern of deformation of the bell surface.

Almost all of the bells cast in ancient Chinese foundries are lens-shaped in cross-section rather than circular, and the sound produced by these bells differs depending on where the bell is struck. These two-tone bells can generate a distinct “A-tone” and a “B-tone.” The A-tone is produced when the center of the bell-face near the sound-bow rim is struck, and the B-tone is created by striking at the side. The resulting vibrations have different patterns of a lower and a higher tone, respectively.

What methods and design principles did the ancient Chinese casters use to create their bronze bells? Chinese founders employed the same methods utilized in casting their ritual vessels, tools, and weapons, using clay for both the model and the mold sections in the “piece-mold process”. An overall view of the progression of bell development in early China is emerging through recent efforts to compare the physical and acoustical properties of sets of bells from various times and regions. Musical acoustic data on bells has been complicated by an incomplete archaeological record as well as by material characteristics of archaeological metals, such as intergranular corrosion and physical distortions and breakage due to burial. Until more data is collected, we must resist attempts to reduce the methods of ancient bell casters throughout China to a single formula.

The earliest bells dating to the Western Zhou period (circa 1050–770 BCE) show an erratic progression in their mass and dimensional measurements, with small bells sometimes being heavier than large ones. Haphazard experimentation in designing chimes (sets) is apparent, and no consistent array of principles can be identified. Bells manufactured during the Late Western Zhou sometimes occur in sets of eight, but these bells apparently acted more as percussion instruments, where the pentatonic series is incomplete.


Figure 7

Six bells (bianzhong) with dragon interlace, China, Eastern Zhou dynasty, late Spring and Autumn or early Warring States period, ca. 550–450 BCE, S1987.4-9

Plotting the weight-size relationship

Figure 8

Plotting the weight-size relationship shows the bells are well scaled and exhibit overall similar physical proportions. A/B tone intervals between bells are also similar, on an average of 343 cents (So 1995).

Tuning accuracy continued to increase as physical and musical proportioning became more regular in the Eastern Zhou (fig. 7). During the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BCE), denser note distributions were achieved by creating sets with up to twenty-six bells, such as in the Wangsun Gao yongzhong set found at Xiasi (Chu culture).

The two-tone bell phenomenon is demonstrated in a digital app that the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) developed using a replica bell set owned by the Education Department at the Freer|Sackler. The app allows users to “play” the bells by “striking” them at their two strike points. Although it can be used on your smart phone or tablet, the VMFA app works best on a laptop.

Beyond the Walls: Play it! Chinese Bronze Bells

Two-tone bell app on the VMFA web site


The challenge for this project is marshalling the complex cultural, archaeological, art historical, and acoustical data to link among ideas, objects, and vehicles of interpretation. New technologies will allow the exhibition to be more about “sound” and “music” than objects and could allow visitors to “see sound.” In these respects, this presentation of ancient Chinese bells will be unlike any attempted previously at the Smithsonian. The exhibition is scheduled to open in August 2017.

Learn more:

  • Lothar von Falkenhausen. Suspended Music: Chime-Bells in the Culture of Bronze Age China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
  • Lothar von Falkenhausen and Thomas D. Rossing. “Acoustical and Musical Studies on the Sackler Bells.” In Jenny F. So, ed. Eastern Zhou Ritual Bronzes from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, vol. 3, 431–84. Washington, DC: Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, 1995.
  • Jenny F. So, ed. Music in the Age of Confucius. Washington, DC: Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 2000.

Related online resource:

The Freer|Sackler is closed for renovation and reinstallation. The popular exhibition Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan is still on view in the International Gallery. (Enter through the Ripley Center.) Join us for our reopening celebration on October 14–15, 2017.