An Imperial Bronze Temple Bell, Bianzhong
Cast Kangxi Mark and Dated 54th Year corresponding to 1715
12 inches high, 9 inches across at widest point
The large bell finely cast, suspended from a double-headed scaly dragon handle, powerfully cast with eyes bulging and nostrils flaring above long flaming manes, curling whiskers, the mouth clenched open to reveal sharp fangs, with a pair of horns extending back over its head along a combed mane with fine details, the two scaly bodies intertwined and crouching in ambush, the large barrel-shaped body with four panels of alternating bosses and trigrams, divided by two rectangular panels, one inscribed with the characters Kangxi wushisi nian zhi ('Made in the 54th year of Kangxi') corresponding to 1715, and the other with yingzhong (ying bell).
During the Qing dynasty bianzhong were produced for the court and they became an essential component of Confucian ritual ceremonies at the Imperial altars, formal banquets and processions. The music produced by these instruments was believed to facilitate communication between humans and deities. Bronze bells of this type were assembled in sets of sixteen and produced twelve musical tones, with four tones repeated in a higher or lower octave. Of equal size but varying thicknesses, these bells were attached to tall wooden frames in two rows of eight, as depicted by Guiseppe Castiglione (1688-1766) in his painting Imperial Banquet in Wanshu Garden (ca. 1755), included in the exhibition Splendors of China's Forbidden City. The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong, The Field Museum, Chicago, 2004, cat. no. 101.
A number of sets of bells of this form but with differing dragon handles, mostly gilt-decorated, appear to have been created during Kangxi's reign; the first two sets in the 52nd year (1713) and the second two sets in the 54th year (1715), and are believed to have been made for the Temple of Agriculture in Beijing. Several bells from the latter sets bearing the same date, of 1715, as our example have been offered at auction. For a bell of similar type, see Sotheby's Hong Kong, 3 October 2017, lot 3724, though differing in various respects. The mark is smaller in our example; the placement of the trigrams differs; as does the dragon handle. However, they were almost certainly from the same workshop.
See two other examples, one of yingzhong tone and the other of huangzhong tone, sold in Sotheby's Hong Kong, 8th April 2010, lot 1858, and 7th October 2010, lot 2105 respectively; a pair, of yingzhong and ruibin tones, sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 1st December 2009, lot 1942; and two sets of five bells, formerly in the Audrey B. Love collection, sold at Christie's New York, 20th October 2004, lots 455 and 456.
The dragons surmounting this bell are known as pulao, which according to ancient Chinese legend is one of the nine sons of the dragon. In this myth it was said that pulao resided close to the shore while his arch enemy, the whale, lived in the ocean. Whenever the whale would come to attack, pulao would sound a roar. The structure of a bell is thus associated with this legend; the clash of the bell, pulao, with the striker, the whale, would result in the dragon producing its loud ringing roar.