bronze bell with dragons and spirals

Ancient bronze musical instruments including the Nao, Zheng and Zhong — all bell-like percussion instruments. J. Kenneth Moore of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “In the period between 3,500 and 2,000 years ago, Chinese rulers constructed elaborate tombs containing weapons, vessels, and remains of servants and, in some cases, full ensembles of musical instruments such as stone chimes (known today as qing), ovoid clay ocarinas and drums. [Source: J. Kenneth Moore Department of Musical Instruments, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“Zhou-dynasty musical ensembles (11th–3rd century B.C.) contained highly complex and varied instruments. Orchestras consisting of exceptionally decorated instruments, notably one discovered in 1978 in the tomb of the Marquis Yi of the former Zeng state (Hubei Province, 5th century B.C.), reveal an astonishing understanding of the interplay between physics, acoustics, metallurgy, and design. Some 125 instruments, including sets of tuned bells and stone slabs suspended from ornate tiered stands, transverse flutes, bamboo panpipes, mouth organs producing several pitches at once (sheng), zithers, and drums comprise an ensemble that was the most sophisticated and complex of its time." \^/

“Zhou scholars provided the first classification system for musical instruments. The bayin (eight-tone) system presented in the Zhouli (Rites of Zhou, ca. 3rd century B.C.) organized musical instruments into eight resonating materials–hide, clay, metal, stone, gourd, wood, silk and bamboo. This breakdown complemented cosmological assumptions and concepts such as the eight compass points and the eight trigrams (ba gua). In later periods, as wind (bamboo) and string (silk) instruments became dominant, the term sizhou ("silk-bamboo") became a synonym for music itself. The set of bells of Tzu-fan chime at the National Palace Museum, Taipei has eight pieces in total. It is from the Middle Spring & Autumn Period, ca. 8th to 5th century B.C. The Chime set of Zi-fan dates to the Mid Spring and Autumn Period, c. 7th to 6th century B.C.,

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote:“Archaeologists have unearthed quite a few sets of instruments used in court performances in Zhou times. Key instruments were stone chimes, bronze drums, stringed lute-like instruments, bamboo flutes, and sets of bells....Music played a central role in court life in ancient China. Visitors to the courts of kings and lords could expect to be entertained by troops of dancers and accompanying musicians. Many of the poems in the classic Book of Songs were odes or hymns meant to be performed on ritual occasions. Music was believed by early thinkers to have great moral powers. Confucius distinguished between music that would bring people into harmony and music that would lead to wanton thoughts. The more quantifiable aspects of music attracted the attention of cosmological theorists who speculated on the significance of pitch measurement and its relationship to other numerical relationships. Sound as a natural phenomenon was perceived to be paradigmatic of many natural processes.[Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=]

Good Websites and Sources on Early Chinese History: 1) Robert Eno, Indiana University; 2) Chinese Text Project ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization ; 4) Zhou Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia

Dance During the Zhou Dynasty

bronze Bo bell

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen wrote: “The so-called chorus dances were popular during the Zhou (Chou) dynasty (c. 1066–221 BC). They were divided into two groups: wu dances performed by men and xi (hsi) dances performed by women. Besides religious rituals, there were less ceremonial types of performances, such as comic numbers performed by clowns and dwarfs as well as displays of acrobatic skills.” [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki]

The earliest forms of dance grew out of religious rituals — including exorcism dances performed by shaman and drunken masked dances — and courtship festivals and developed into a forms of entertainment patronized by the court. In ancient texts there are descriptions of troupes of women dancers entertaining guests at official banquets and drinking parties.

In ancient times, dance was regarded as kind of physical exercise that help harmonize the body and the mind. It was incorporated into Confucian rituals and military exercises. One early Confucian dance called the Great Dance of Zhou featured performers with flutes and pheasant feathers.

The Book of Songs recorded a dance festival in the Zhou dynasty. According to Chinese mythology the cultural hero Fu Xo gave humans the fish net and the Harpoon Dance; the god She Nong created agriculture and the Plough Dance; and the Yellow Emperor, the legendary ruler from the 26th century B.C., is honored with Dance of the Cloud Gate. Ancient texts also mention hunting dances and a Constellation Dance, which was performed to seek help from the gods for a good harvest.

Musical Instruments from the Tomb of Marquis Yi

In 1977, the extraordinary 2,500-year-old tomb of the Marquis Yi was found near the city of Suzou in Hubei Province. The four-chamber structure contained the remains of the Marquis and along with 21 sacrificed women (perhaps wives, concubines, or musicians), chariots, and weapons. The instruments found in Marquis Yi's tomb. According to Ebrey, “ represent the largest single group of musical instruments preserved from any culture in the ancient world.”

The musical instruments taken from the tomb include zithers, bamboo flutes, pan pipes, mouth-organs, traber flutes, bronze drums, stone chimes made with 35 stones. and a set of 64 cast-bronze bells in a lacquered wooden frame. The bells cover a range of five octaves, each with 12 semitones. The largest bell weighs 485 pounds. It is engraved with two elephants engaged in a greeting ritual. Such bells were used at temple fairs, burials and other ritualistic events.

Sheila Melvin wrote in the International Herald Tribune, "The chime-bells hang from a three-level frame made of lacquered wood and copper. The frame is supported by stunning bronze posts shaped like warriors with muscled arms, loose robes and daggers sheathed at their waists. The bells, frames and hooks have 3,755 inscriptions that provide hanging and assembly instructions and reveal an elaborate theory of music...So sacred were the chime-bells that their seams were sealed with human blood and their inaugural performance was a state ceremony of the most importance."

Altogether Marquis Yi's tomb contained 124 musical instruments. The bamboo woodwind mouth organ is 29 centimeters long. There are eighteen bamboo pipes with a vibrating reed inside each pipe. The two panpipes found in the tomb are about 23 centimeters long and is made of 13 bamboo pipes. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=]

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “The set of 64 bells found in Marquis Yi's tomb must be considered one of the most astonishing archaeological discoveries in recent times. The bells were arranged in eight rows according to size and pitch, and hang in three rows on the 5.8-meter-long L-shaped, lacquered stand with bronze supports. The bells bear inscriptions that indicate their pitches and reveal they were gifts from the king of Chu. The precision with which these bells were cast indicates that the art of bell-making had reached a very advanced state. The bells vary in weight from 6.75 to 79.5 kilograms.”

20080320-2500 year old bells from Hubei22.jpg
Zhou era bells from the Tomb of Marquis Yi

Ancient Chinese Bells

J. Kenneth Moore of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “From the earliest historical periods, particularly in ritual music from the Bronze Age onward, bells have been an essential component of instrumental ensembles in China The earliest known bronze bells, from the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600–1050 B.C.), are the type called nao (49.136.10), in which the mouth of the bell faces up, and seem to have been played singly or in sets of three or five. After the tenth century, during the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1046–256 B.C.), sets of bells of the zhong type, suspended from a wood frame, were used. [Source: J. Kenneth Moore Department of Musical Instruments, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“Both the zhong and the nao are struck externally and, thanks to their unique construction, are capable of producing two accurately tuned tones of intervals sounding a major or minor third. Both types are expertly cast, with sides that flare from the crown to the mouth, which is elliptical in cross section and concave in profile. Such a shape, used for small animal bells since 1500 B.C., provides one tone when struck in the center and another when struck on the side. The earliest evidence of a chromatic scale is a set of ten nao from the tenth or eleventh century B.C., unearthed in 1993 in Ningxiang, Hunan Province. The handlelike stem projecting from the crown helps to secure the bell to a frame. Tuned bells ranged greatly in size; some were only about nine inches tall, while the largest found to date is about forty inches tall and weighs 488 pounds."^/

“Bells and stone chimes were the chief instruments in Chinese ritual music from the Bronze Age until 1911. There is now a revival of their use at the Confucius Temple in Qufu, Shandong Province. The Museum houses a bell and a jade chime made within a year of each other for ceremonial and ritual use at the court of the Qing-dynasty Kangxi emperor (r. 1662–1722). Each is a single piece from a large set of instruments made at the imperial workshops, which were operating at the highest standard of craftsmanship during the early decades of the eighteenth century."^/

One of the world's oldest and amazing musical instruments was found in the 5th century B.C. the tomb of the Marquis Zeng Hou Yi in Hubei Province), The sets of bell are in various sizes and hung up on stands. Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog on Music is Asia: “These bell sets ("Bian Zhong") are not surely declared in function, but it is clear that the first purpose was that of a musical instrument. Bell sets differ in appearance, but most of them show at least a range of three octaves, including all chromatic pitches of the temperized scale. This way, one might think of a bell set as a melodic one, but it is also possible that the bells were used in ensembles to give accents and represent the master tuning for other instruments. All bells found are still playable, and all of them hold carvings and scripts, which do not only indicate the two sounds a bell can produce, they even give playing advice and the first solmisation in music history, which is outstanding, as mostly all instruments in this time only hold dedications if carved. [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt from his blog on Music is Asia ***]

“The first bell sets seem to go back to 12th century B.C. The 5th century B.C. ones seem to require 5 players to be played, while it is still unclear whether the smaller bells which were hung nearly 3 meter above were played or not. As with the bronze drums of the Dong Son culture in Vietnam we still have to be cautious with interpretations. Bells can be found worldwide, next to China we find bells in Persia very early, then followed by the signal giving hung bell in Christian churches. Worldwide, bells may be found as signal instruments used for cattle as for temple ceremonies, but only the Chinese bell sets surely function as a musical instrument, built with clearly defined pitches and carved with the two pitches and playing advices. Though the bells do not appear in the order we would nowadays expect them to, this is still another indication for the playing skills that were needed to be part of such a bell ensemble. ***

“The first bell sets seem to go back to 12th century B.C. It seems as if the first set of bells found dating back to the 12th century B.C. were collected over the time and not produced at the same time. This diatonic set with bells collected from different ages and locations seemed to be the initial set for all following productions - this means, there was no “how to make a bell tuned C”, they just copied a bell further on for later bell sets, using it as the basic model for copies. This also is important for the historical impact of the bell tuning on other Chinese musical instruments. ***

bronze bell bianzhong

Bell of Zhou: Its Ritual Use and Inscriptions

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The foundation of Chinese culture was laid four thousand years ago in the remote ages of Three Dynasties (c. 2070 ~ 221 B.C.): Xia, Shang, and Zhou, during which Rites and Music acquired the status of the keystone of society. The culture of rites and music embodied itself in bronzes, which were considered "Treasure of the State". Ding (cauldron) was foremost among all ritual vessels; zhong (bell) the prime musical instrument. To display sacrificial offerings and to perform ceremonial music, cauldron sets and bell ensembles were indispensable parts of any grand events of worship. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei,]

“Fresh-cast bronzes shine like gold so the ancients sometimes referred to them as jing (gold). In the nomenclature of epigraphy, the words cast or engraved on bronzes are accordingly called jing wen (Golden Script), or zhong ding wen (Bell and Cauldron Script). These vessels were commissioned to commemorate unusual accomplishments or great virtues, and to offer memorial sacrifices in the family temples, so as to honor ancestors and to pass down to posterity. Today the accompanying inscriptions provide not only first-hand materials attesting to historical veracity, but also valuable sources for understanding the subsequent development of Chinese characters.

“Zong Zhou Zhong (Bell of Zhou), commissioned by King Li of West Zhou, is the most important musical instrument cast under his royal decree. It is 65.6 centimeters high and 35.2 centimeters wide, with 123 characters. Also known as Bell of Fu or Bell of Hu, the Bell of Zhou was commissioned by King Li of West Zhou to perform in the ceremony of ancestral worship. The stately form and dignified look, coupled with its courtly, erudite inscription, certainly exemplifies the most significant Son of Heaven bronze that is extant today. Thirty six decorative pegs prominently protrude from both sides of the double-tile-shaped bell. The bell handle stands imposingly tall and erect. The 123-character long inscription commences from the middle of the front, continues on the lower left then turns to the lower right of the other side. The name of the person who commissioned the piece is indicated as Fu, which phonetically approximates to, and is likely interchangeable with, Hu, the personal name of King Li, thus to whom the scholars attributed the bell.

“The inscription describes how King Li had modeled on the great virtues of his royal ancestors, the two founding fathers of Zhou dynasty, King Wen and King Wu, in assiduously consolidating and solidifying his realm. When the chieftain of a southern state Pu launched an outrageous military offense against the land of Zhou, King Li didn't hesitate and personally led his troops expelling the enemy all the way back to its wretched capital. The surrendering Pu sent emissaries to beg peace and twenty six other states also came along to seek audience. King Li, grateful of the blessings bestowed by the Almighty One and Hundred Divinities, commissioned this Bell of Zhou to celebrate the exploits, to offer it to the family temple with music, and to pray for the ancestor kings' benediction of eternal peace and safety across the entire realm.

Ancient Chinese Music

According to Chinese texts, music began round 2700 B.C., when Huang Di, China's legendary first emperor, ordered bamboo pipes of the right length to be cut so he could imitate the song of the phoenix. Confucian classic from the Zhou (Chou) dynasty (1030-221 B.C.)---Book of Rites (Li Chi) and Book of Songs (Shijing)---has sections on the philosophy of music and records folk songs, eulogies to the emperor, eulogies for princes and sacrificial rites.

To early Confucians music had political and moralistic functions and was regarded as a pursuit of virtuous men. In the 6th century B.C., Confucius said that music and dance were such important elements of political life they should not be squandered on entertainment. According to one story, Confucius found himself at a festival with singers and jesters and declared, "Commoners who beguile their lords deserve to die. Let them be punished!" The party was immediately stopped and the performers were killed.

Confucius put a great emphasis on music as an accompaniment for rites. According to the Confucian Book of Rites: “Music issues from within, the rites act from the outside. Serenity is the result of music issuing from within; refinement is the result of the rites acting from outside. Great music must be simple; great notes must be easy. When music is it at its best there is no resentment, when the rites are at their best we do not contend."

Ancient Chinese Ritual Music

On the ensemble practiced used during the Confucian era, Zhou Yu wrote in the second chapter of Guo Yu from the 4th century B.C. "Start with metal and stone, move along with silk and bamboo”

Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog on Music is Asia: Starting with the early Confucian ages we discover a gap between ritual and entertaining music which stayed and got more wide until today. The quite uniform ritual music was even experienced as “boring” by the rulers of the Warring States. This is why we have a breakdown in the tradition of ritual music until the renaissance of the Confucianism in the A.D. 9th century, which did not only bring this philosophy back to life, it even turned it into a religion with temples and liturgical rituals that demanded for the old ritual music again, even if it had to be renewed. Today, the ritual music is mainly lost, only parts of it survived in Taiwan or Korea. [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt from his blog on Music is Asia ***]

bronze bo bells with inscriptions

“The importance of the old traditional ritual music is still present for much of Chinas musical attitude until today. It was in the early ages until 9th century B.C. that most ensembles had their main focus on percussive elements, since this importance of the timbre was shifted to concerns about pitch and tuning. There was following a more frequently use of melodic instruments like wind and string instruments. The chime stones and huge bell sets might be understood as a link between percussive and melodic instruments. Bells were able to be used both ways, even if the pitches were not really precise and it was hard for other instruments to assemble the tuning. ***

As the ensembles changed, so did the music. We can assume that the ritual music reflected more and more content of traditional folk and entertaining music. On the other hand, the ritual music always tried to separate from the entertaining music and appear as to be more intelligent, educated and of higher skills. These opposite intentions had a serious impact on the development of the traditional ritual music, as it was giving birth to several musical art forms like, for example, the intimacy and intellectuality of Qin playing. ***

“The biggest importance for the actual music of China lies in the possibility to look back through two thousand years of musical history - and see that even the most powerful aspects of the basic Chinese ritual music was already there. It was the germ-cell for the later chamber and court music as like those survived until today. ***

Importance of Music in Zhou Dynasty Rituals

Music played an important role in ancient Chinese conceptions of society, politics, and the workings of the universe. A passage from “The Yili” on rituals at an archery contest go: “The mats for the musicians are spread at the top of the western steps and a little to the east. The music master ascends first and stands to the west of the musicians with his face to the north. The musicians number four with two lutes. The lutes are carried in front by two guides, who lay them upon their left shoulders, the heads being in front. They crook their fingers into the sound holes and turn the strings towards themselves while with the right hand they lead the musicians along. Then the mouth organ players enter below in the hall and stand to the west of the suspended bells and drums. Then they unite in performing pieces from the “Songs of Zhou” and “Songs of the South” sections of the “Book of Songs”, beginning with “”Guan-guan”cry the ospreys,” and then, “The kudzu vine spreads far and wide,” and, “The mouse-ear plant”. [Source: “The Yili”, translation by John Steele, 1917, Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/]

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “If this passage seems strange in the emphasis it places upon music, those familiar with the role of music and dance in the tribal structures of Native American peoples might find it interesting to recall that the Chinese and Native American peoples were, most probably, distant cousins, fifteen thousand years removed. While it would be prudent to be skeptical of any claim of shared cultural roots across the Pacific, noting similarities in this ritual area at least helps bring the Chinese case into more coherent focus.” In one story of a Zhou ruler, while “Zhòu’s ghastly evil and a series of wondrous portents failed to move King Wu to war, the defection of the Shang royal musicians did.” /+/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, University of Washington

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei, Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2021

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.