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Set of Bronze Bells with Double-Dragon Knobs and Dragon-among-Clouds Design

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Period: 52nd year of the Kangxi reign (1713), Qing dynasty (1644-1911)

 This set of gilded bells is cast in bronze. Each bell is of ovoid shape rather than the traditional shape that resembles two joined roof tiles. The six circular protrusions around the mouth of each bell are designed to be struck by a mallet to produce sound. The surface of the bell is cast with dragon and cloud motifs. The reign mark may be translated to read, "Made in the 52nd year of the Kangxi reign" (Kangxi wushier nian zhi); it is cast in relief in the centre front. The name of the pitch of each individual bell is cast on the back. The sixteen bells in the set are identical in shape and size. Their pitches are determined by their varied thicknesses—the thinner the wall of the bell, the lower the pitch. The sixteen pitches of this set of bells correspond to the twelve principal pitches and four auxiliary pitches of Chinese music according to Qing music theory. The bells are suspended on a rack in two rows of eight with pitches rising progressively from low to high. The pitches in the upper and lower rows also respectively correlate with the active and passive (i.e., yang and yin) forces. The rack for suspending the bells is called sunju. The character sun refers to the top rail, and ju denotes the side legs. Either end of the top rail is sculpted into a dragon’s head while the legs of the rack terminate in two multi-coloured lions crouching on pedestals. The rack is gold lacquered and further adorned with a phoenix design and colourful tassels. The entire rack has a pleasing aesthetic. 

This type of bell is included as a heavy item in the category of metal instruments and was one of the eight classes of musical instruments played in the harmonious ensemble (Zhonghe shaoyue) in the palace during Ming and Qing times. On the day of birthday celebrations, the emperor would arrive at the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihe dian) to receive felicitations presented by various officials, ministers, and foreign envoys. Then he would ascend the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqing gong) to receive the felicitations presented by his consorts and daughters. During these ceremonies, the instruments of the ensemble would perform under the eaves on either side of the central bay of the façade of the Hall of Supreme Harmony and the Palace of Heavenly Purity.
Website version edited by Zhuang Ying and Adam J. Ensign (July 2017)
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