Bianzhong (bronze bells) from the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770–221 BCE) shown at the Imperial Palace, Beijing. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
A bianzhong is an ancient Chinese musical instrument comprising bells of different sizes—most often they are made of a copper, tin, and lead alloy—which are hung in an orderly way from a wooden rack and struck with a mallet. The instrument’s popularity grew after its first appearance in the Shang dynasty (1766–1045 BCE) and did not fade until the Song dynasty (960–1279).
The earliest of the ancient Chinese musical instruments called bianzhong mostly consisted of three bronze bells. As has been revealed from excavations, the number grew to five, and then to eight by mid–Western Zhou (1045–771 BCE). Bianzhong of nine or thirteen bells could be seen by the middle and late Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BCE). A bianzhong found in a tomb of the early Warring States period (475–221 BCE) has over sixty bells: the famous Zenghou Yi Mu Bianzhong (Bells from the Tomb of Marquis Yi of the Zeng State ??????).
The Zeng bells were unearthed in the Sui County of Hubei Province, China, in 1978. The Chinese characters engraved on one of the bells disclose that the instrument was a gift to Marquis Yi ? from Xiong Zhang ??, King of the Chu State in 433 CE. The largest of the bells stands 153.4 centimeters (about 5 feet) tall, and the smallest stands 37.3 centimeters (about 1.2 feet) tall. The bells were hung in three tiers, the top having nineteen bells in three groups; the middle, thirty-three in three groups; and the bottom, twelve in two groups. The dimension of the set is 2.75 meters (9 feet) in height, 7.48 meters (24 feet) at the long side, and 3.35 meters (about 11 feet) at the short side. Together, the set weighs a total of 2,500 kilograms (about 5,512 pounds).
Because of the right burial conditions, the Zeng bells are still intact, capable of producing melodies. By accident, it was found that each of the bells can give two tones when struck in different locations. According to Martin Braun (2003, para. 13), a neuroscientist of music from Sweden, the craftsmanship of the instrument is such that the Zeng bells prove that about 2,500 years ago the Chinese had fifth generation, fifth temperament, a twelve-tone system in musical practice (not just in theory), a norm tone for an orchestral ensemble, an integration of fifths and thirds in tuning, and a preference of pure thirds over pure fifths. At this point in history, China was 2,000 years ahead of Europe, not only in bell casting, but also in musical acoustics.
Other bianzhong sets have been excavated, including quite a number of replicas of Zhou bells made in the Song dynasty such as: the archaistic Dasheng and Taihe series; the Number One Bianzhou of Western Han (202 BCE–CE 8), unearthed in 2000 in the Luo village of Henan Province; and a set of sixteen gold bells made in 1790 for the Qianlong emperor.
Braun, M. (2003). Bell tuning in ancient China: A six-tone scale in a 12-tone system based on fifths and thirds. Retrieved March 26, 2008, from http://web.telia.com/~u57011259/Zengbells.htm
von Falkenhausen, L. (1993). Suspended music: Chime-bells in the culture of Bronze Age China. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Rossing, T. D. (2001). Acoustics of percussion instruments: Recent progress. Acoustical Science and Technology (22)3 pp. 177–188.
Everett, Yayoi Uno, & Lau, Frederick. (2004). Locating East Asia in Western art music. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Source: Yuan, Haiwang. (2009). Bianzhong. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 174–175. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
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