NEW YORK - An Imperial Gilt-Bronze Ritual Bell, dated to the eighth year of the Qianlong period, (1743 in the Western calendar) will be offered in our 15–16 September Important Chinese Art sale (fig. 1). The bell was produced for the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736-1795) and later acquired by another larger-than-life figure, the famous American newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst (fig. 2). As with all extraordinary works of art, its storied provenance and historical significance transcend far beyond the metal and design that define its physical properties.
FIG. 1 A RARE AND IMPORTANT IMPERIAL GILT-BRONZE RITUAL BELL (BIANZHONG) QIANLONG
MARK AND PERIOD, DATED TO THE EIGHTH YEAR, CORRESPONDING TO 1743. TO BE SOLD AT SOTHEBY’S
NEW YORK ON 15-16 SEPTEMBER 2015.
Similar to its Western counterpart, the Chinese bell acts as both a summons and a means to convey an alert, but the resemblance ends there. Western music with its equal-tempered chromatic scale focuses on technique and melodious expression. The Chinese adopted a more conceptual approach and developed a philosophy of music based on nature and the cosmos. Music theory was built on highly abstract principles such as the Ba Yin, "The Eight Sounds," a musical rendering of the Ba Gua, "Eight Trigrams" of Daoism, the theory being that all eight categories had to be represented in order to produce music that was harmonious with nature. The harmony and pitch of the music served as a mirror on society and a discourse on politics.
FIG. 2 WILLIAM RANDOLPH HEARST.
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 legitimate rule. Should a ruler fail to act in the interest of harmony, then discord would ensue, order would be lost, and the Mandate of Heaven would be lost.
FIG. 3 SET OF IMPERIAL GILT BRONZE BELLS, PALACE MUSEUM, BEIJING.
Bronze bells of this type, first made during the Shang dynasty some three thousand years ago, 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 (fig. 3). A set of bells along with a similarly structured set of stone chimes were central to religious and court life up until the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911.
FIG. 5 QIANLONG GILT BRONZE BELLS, MUSÉE CHINOIS, CHÂTEAU DE FONTAINEBLEAU. © RMN-GRAND PALAIS / ART RESOURCE, NY.
Ceremonial music accompanied every official event; temple offerings, court assemblies, festival and holiday celebrations. A set of bells and a set of chimes flank a grand yurt in a painting by Giuseppe Castiglione and Ding Guanpeng. The painting commissioned in 1755 depicts a banquet staged by the Qianlong emperor in the Wanshu Yuan (Ten Thousand Tree Garden) at the Chengde Summer Mountain Retreat and vividly illustrates the formality and ritual inherent at every event (fig. 4). Special sequences of notes were struck every time the emperor or empress entered or exited an official gathering, the tones conveying the solemnity of the event while simultaneously reiterating imperial divinity and power over the natural world; a somewhat more imposing version of our contemporary "Hail to the Chief."
FIG. 6 ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS, APRIL 13, 1861.
Of the published Qianlong imperial bianzhong, two bells at the Château de Fontainebleau are identical to the present piece (fig. 5). The Fontainebleau bells were part of a group of treasures presented to Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie in 1861. A public exhibition of all of the works of art was held at the Tuileries (fig. 6) and then two years later in 1863, the group was installed into four repurposed rooms of the Fontainebleau palace, the Musée Chinois where they are retained still. This imperial bell comes from the massive and diverse collection of one of America’s most audacious and influential figures, William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951). He purchased it at The American Art Galleries, New York, The Notable Yamanaka Collection of Artistic Oriental Objects and Decorative Art, on the 5th of February 1921, lot 579. In one of the multitude of obituary notices for William Randolph Hearst, it was surmised that he accounted for twenty-five percent of the world’s art market during the 1920s and 30s. Much of the incredibly diverse collection has been sold or donated over the years but a good deal of it may still be seen today at Hearst Castle, San Simeon, California.