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  • Musical Bells and Chime Stones        2008-5-28 11:17:51

    History culture, Musical Bells and Chime Stones
    These are percussion musical instruments unique to ancient China. The zhong are made of bronze while the qing generally of stone. They may be played either individually or in groups. In the latter case, they are hung in rows on wooden racks and known respectively as bianzhong and bianqing. Struck with wooden hammers, they produce melodious sounds of various notes. In their time, they were the important instruments played--either in solo performance or in ensemble or as accompaniment--during imperial audiences, palace banquets and religious ceremonies.
          1. Stone and Jade Qing
           It can be easily imagined that the stone q must have been one of the earliest musical instruments in China. During the Stone Age, the Chinese forefathers, working,with stone implements, found out that certain sonorous rocks, when knocked, produced musical sounds and that, by knocking at rocks of different sizes, they could make music. So the earliest man-made chime stones were born out of those natural rocks. In 1973 a Shang Dynasty (c. 17th-1 lth century B.C.) chime stone was discovered from the ruins of that age in Anyang, Henan Province. It is grey-coloured and has tiger patterns engraved on it, showing that it had been used by the imperial court.
    History culture, Musical Bells and Chime Stones
    The key step in the making of a chime stone is to give it the right note. Artisans learned long ago how to achieve this. If the pitch of a stone was too high, they would grind the two flat faces of the slab, making it thinner if the pitch was on the low side, they would grind the ends and make the slab shorter, until the right tone was arrived at.
         The jade qing was made much later, following the same idea as for chime stones but using the more valuable jade as the material. In the Hall of Treasures of the Forbidden City can be seen a chime consisting of 12 iade qing. They were made during the reign of Qianlong (1736-1795) of a precious black jade exquisitely finished on both sides with gold-painted dragons playing with balls. It is said that the twelve were chosen out of 160 pieces made at the time by the jade carvers of Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, involving 90,000 workdays and untold costs.
      2. Chime of Bells Bianzhong
         To make the chime of bells, an important metal instrument in ancient times, bronze was invariably used for the best acoustic effect. Early bells are called yongzhong, rather flat in shape and very much like two concave tiles joined face to face. Later, however, people stressed the beauty of their shape and gave them a more and more round body, at the expense of the tonal qualities.
         It seems that there was no fixed number of bells for each chime. Judging by those unearthed to date, a chime may be very simple, consisting of 3, 6 or 9 bells, or very complicated, with 13, 14, 16 or as many as 36 bells.
          The most elaborate ancient bianzhong, a set of 65 bells, was unearthed in 1978 in Suixian County, Hubei Province, from the tomb of the Marquis of Zeng dating from the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.). Their total weight is over 2,500 kilograms, and they were found hung on a three-tiered rack. The biggest of the bells has an overall height of 153.4 centimetres and a weight of 203.6 kilograms. The whole chime, unprecedented disovery in the history of musical instrument ever brought to light--not only in China but in the world as a whole.
         Although buried underground for over 2,400 years, the bells still produce fine tones. Ancient and modern music, including tunes from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, revived ancient tunes of the Tang Dynasty and theme tunes of modern Chinese operas, has been played on them with satisfying results.
         Careful study of the bells has revealed that they were cast according to the 7-tone scale with 5 semitones in between, completing a well-integrated system of 12 tones. The scale of the whole chime agrees with the modern 7-tone scale in C major, and its range covers 5 octaves, just two octaves less than the modern piano. What is more amazing, each bell can produce two different tones, a unique feature in percussion imstruments.
        An inscription of 2,500 characters engraved on the bells tells of the musical theories and the names of the tones prevalent at the time as well as the positions where the tones can be produced. The unearthing of this set of bells has proved beyond all doubt the application of the twelve-tone equal temperament in Chinese music as early as the 5th century B.C., providing one more evidence of the antiquity of the Chinese civilization.
         The 65-bell bianzhong can be seen at the Provincial Museum of Hubei in the Central China city of Wuhan.
    History culture, Musical Bells and Chime Stones
    Another bianzhong worth seeing is one of 16 bells made of pure gold during the Qianlong period in the 18th century, now displayed in the Forbidden City's Hall of Treasures. Cast in unique forms and about the same size, the 16 bells are of a uniform height of 23.8 centimetres, but their weight ranges from 4,703 to 14,316 grams. Round in shape, they produce a rather monotonous ring, but they were meant during the heyday of the Qing Dynasty, to impress viewers with the wealth and extravagance of the imperial house. And they are indeed very much valued, being cast in dazzling gold and engraved with lively patterns of ball-playing dragons.

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