Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The Bells of Wuhan

Two years ago I was traveling in China, taking a camel trek across the Taklimakan desert following Polo’s route, and earlier stopped in the great city of Wuhan located on the famous Yangtze River. What I discovered there was astounding.

I’d guess that most Western musicians are unaware of the ancient chime bells in Wuhan, a set of 64 ritual bells perfectly tuned to the 12 tone tempered scale. The bells were part of a 1978 excavation that unearthed 20,000 articles dating from the “Warring States” period, 2405 years ago (B.C. 400) from the tomb of Marquess Yi of Zeng, who was buried in the late fifth century-B.C. They are now in the Wuhan Provincial Museum and should rank as an earth’s wonder.

48 bells produce two notes of minor thirds (six are needed to produce twelve semitones) and 16 produce notes of major thirds (eight are needed to produce twelve semitones). Each bell is marked to show what notes it peals. The range is five octaves and each bell produces the two tones depending upon where it is struck. (This data was furnished to me and I think I have it worked out. Readers are welcome to try too).

At 2500 kilograms (over a half ton), they are likely the largest instruments in the world and required five players. The heaviest bell is 203.6 kilos (about 446 lbs) and 1.5 meters high (about 5'). The name of the tone and the date is inscribed on each bell in both Zeng and Chu scripts. The bells were played only for rituals and were last played in 1997 for the return of Hong Kong.

I had to go back to the Greek Pythagorus and about B.C.500 when he wrote about achieving a twelve note system by superimposing perfect fifths. Then I read in the The Spring and Autumn of Leu, a Chinese document from about the 3d century B.C., that “considerable care was taken by bell makers to produce intervals very close to modern semitones”. But, it is unknown whether they were guided by theoretically accurate pitches. We do know that in this time (Han dynasty), the octave was recognized as the basic unit and it was divided into twelve smaller units. The ratio 3:2 was used for fifths and 3:4 for falling fourths. This suggests considerable contact between east and west to me.

Sachs writes that the Chinese attempted the first tempered scale in A.D. 400 and adds that it was Ju Zaiyu who expounded on, and created, the first tempered scale of 12 notes in 1596. Evans says the same thing. The history of these bells appear to contradict them. I wish I could have heard them. Mmm-maybe not. I’d likely still hear them.

This should be of interest to Western musicians who usually think of the tempered scale as a 17th century innovation and used first by J.S. Bach in 1722. Our Western histories trace the theory of equal temperament to H. Grammateus in 1518 and it was probably the result of Jesuits returning from China, who, as the bells show, developed it long before.

Anyone having more information on this please comment. Thanks.

Sources: Ruth Lor Malloy China Guide 1999, Open Road Publishing.

Curt Sachs Harvard Dictionary of Music 1969.

C.C.Evans Guqin Music, at

Robert Temple, The Genius of China


Blogger Unknown said...

Hi there,

I was looking into the bells when I came across your post here. I was working in Wuhan for a year between 06 and 07 and you might be interested to know what the provincial meuseum there has regular playing of replica bells (I hope replicas). I have some sound and video (not great quality since I only had the record function on a small point-and-click camera to go on.

It was a great playing.


7:34 PM  
Blogger GAR said...

Try this site for a concert of the replica bells:

George Ramick

8:21 AM  

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