Bells resonate in Chinese traditional culture far beyond the pleasant summoning of a musical note.  From the Bronze Age to the end of the Qing dynasty, sets of bells (zhong), usually with a set of complementary jade chimes (qing), were an essential part of ritual performance. The struck tones had cosmological significance and were considered a means by which to summon the immortals. Ceremonial music accompanied every official event; temple offerings ranging from the God of Grain to Confucius to the royal ancestors, court assemblies, festival and holiday celebrations. The harmony and pitch of the music served as a reminder of the importance of consonance and order. The art of music through pitch and composition served as a mirror on society and a discourse on politics.  In fact, in the legal codes of the Ming and Qing dynasties, the word for ‘law’ was ‘musical note’. A bronze bell, if struck correctly, produced the perfect tone and this act was understood as a metaphor for the legitimate rule. Should a ruler fail to act in the interest of harmony then discord would ensue, order would be lost, and he would no longer be worthy of the Mandate of Heaven.

CORRESPONDING TO 1743, ESTIMATE $1,000,000 – 1,500,000

As an avid student of history and collector of antiquities, the Qianlong emperor was keenly aware of the significance of zhong and their power in tradition, and used this as means to reinforce the legitimacy of his reign.  With over a thousand ancient bronzes in the Imperial collection, he singled out a group of eleven Zhou dynasty bronze bells for special recognition, writing about them, and putting them on permanent display in a specially designed hall. For the emperor they were a connection to ancient ritual. Through them he could evoke the ideals of ancient times which had endured through a continuous line of dynastic reign and for which he was now responsible. Qing dynasty bianzhong, such as the present example, are of archaistic form modeled after Zhou dynasty prototypes. However, it is interesting to note that like his grandfather, the Kangxi emperor, the Qianlong emperor directed the Imperial foundry to gild the bells rather than apply a dark green patina more reminiscent of the archaic form.  In this way he showed veneration but not imitation of the past.  The present bell, extravagantly gilt, with its sinuous dragon-form handles and ornate high relief casting forms a distinctly Qing declaration of power and wealth.

N09393_bellessay_fig1Fig. 1 Two imperial bianzhong dated to the eighth year of the Qianlong reign,
Château de Fontainebleau © RNN-Grand Palais/Art Resource NY.

In 1741 to satisfy his deep interest in music theory, Qianlong initiated a Music Division for court music and specified melodies for various court functions which endured into the early 20th century. Gilt-bronze bells of this type were assembled in sets of sixteen, producing twelve musical tones, with four tones repeated in a higher or lower octave. The bells were set in two rows - one row of eight yang (masculine) bells and one row of eight yin (feminine). Cast in equal size but varying in thickness, these bells were attached to tall elaborate wooden frames as evidenced in the scene depicted by Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766) in his painting Imperial Banquet in Wanshu Garden (c. 1755), included in the exhibition Splendors of China's Forbidden City. The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong, The Field Museum, Chicago, cat. no. 101. 

Of the published Qianlong imperial bianzhong, two bells at the Château de Fontainebleau are identical to the present piece (Fig. 1). With a similarly incised mark ‘made in the eighth year of the Qianlong reign’, the other cartouches indicate their respective musical notes nanlu (10th) and yingzhong (12th). Those two bells are illustrated in Le Musée Chinois de L’impératrice Eugénie, Paris, 2001, p. 39. The Fontainebleau bells were part of a group of treasures presented to Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie in 1861. These important objects from Beijing were chosen by General Montauban as an expression of gratitude from the French troops. Shortly after being presented to the royal family, public exhibition of all of the works of art was organized and held at the Tuileries (Fig. 2). Following this, the military works were sent to the National Repository for Armaments. Empress Eugénie put other pieces in storage but kept her favorites, the bells among them, to be displayed in her private study at the Tuileries. The bells were moved two years later in 1863, when, after much planning, and personal involvement by the empress, four rooms of the Fontainebleau palace were transformed into the Musée Chinois.

N09393_bellessay_fig2Fig. 2 Illustrated London News, 13 April 1861. (Bell-top right hand corner)

At least two complete set of Qianlong imperial bells remain in the Palace Museum in Beijing. A gilt-bronze set dated to 1764 and another of solid gold corresponding to the year 1791; two from this set, denoting the musical notes taichu (3rd tone) and jiazhong (4th tone), are illustrated in Treasures of Imperial Court, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Hong Kong, 2004, pp. 6-7, pl. 5. The Qianlong period gold set was given to the Emperor by officials in celebration of the Emperor's eightieth birthday. It has been noted that the last Qing emperor, Puyi, in order to raise funds, used these bells as collateral against a loan from Beijing's Yanyue Bank. They were returned to the Palace in 1949.

Imperial Qianlong period bells are rare with only a few having been offered at auction. Dated Qianlong examples include a Buddhist bell with scalloped rim corresponding to the first year of the Qianlong reign, 1736, sold at Christie’s London, 4th November 2008, lot 48; two bells dated to the same year as the present bell, but slightly smaller, with the inscriptions cast in relief and with a series of circular strike plates around the base, sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, one on the 27th May 2008, lot 1540 and the other 3rd June 2015, lot 3119. Three bells cast with the eight trigrams and dated to 1746 are known, two sold at Christie’s New York, one 16th October 2001, lot 307 and the other 22nd September 1995, lot 492, the third is in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, donated in 1903 by Major Louis Livingston. Another bell dated to 1748 and of a more archaistic form was sold in our Paris rooms, 9th June 2010, lot 39. Undated Qianlong period bells include a large example sold in our London rooms, 8th November 2006, lot 36, another in our Paris rooms 9th June 2010, lot 43 and most recently a Zhou-style gilt bronze bell sold at Freeman’s Philadelphia, 14th March 2015, lot 65.

[i] Alison McQueen, Empress Eugénie and the Arts; Political and Visual Culture in the Nineteenth Century, Burlington, Vermont, 2011, p. 229.