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Bianzhong, the musical instrument of ritual
By shirly on 2016-04-07

Watching Chinese soap opera of ancient time, you may see that a kind of musical instrument usually appears. It consists of a set of bronze bells, played melodically. These sets of chime bells are called Bianzhong, used as polyphonic musical instrument and some of these bells have been dated at between 2000 to 3600 years old.

 

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The small bells, usually made of bronze, are hung in a wooden frame and struck with a mallet. They are usually combined with another kind of stone chimes called Bianqing. And their combination played an important role in traditional Chinese rutual and court music in ancient times.

 

There was an important sets of Bianzhong discovered. It consists of a complete ceremonial set of 65 zhong bells, found in a near-perfect state of preservation during the excavation of the tomb of Marquis Yi, who died ca. 430 BCE. He was once the ruler of Zeng, one of the minor states under control of the major State of Chu, which lies in Hubei Province now.

 

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Zhong are unique among all tuned bells created and used for musical performance. They have a lens-shaped (rather than circular) section, the bell mouth has a distinctive "cutaway" profile, and the outer surfaces of the large bells feature 36 studs or bosses, symmetrically placed around the body in four groups of nine. This special shape gives zhong bells the remarkable ability to produce two different musical tones, depending on where they are struck. The interval between these notes on each bell is either a major or minor third, equivalent to a distance of four or five notes on a piano. The bells of Marquis Yi — which are still fully playable after almost 2,500 years — cover a range of slightly less than five octaves but thanks to their twin-tone capability, the set can sound a complete 12-tone scale and can play melodies in diatonic and pentatonic scales.

 

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The bianzhong chimes of Marquis Yi are mounted on intersecting racks set at 90 degrees to each other, consisting of two pairs of massive wooden beams, with three smaller beams (carrying the highest bells) mounted on top of the upper beams. The beams are separated and supported at their ends and intersections by six bronze human figurines with upraised arms and wearing swords; the upper three figures are slightly smaller than the lower, which are cast on their own elaborately decorated bronze pedestals. The ends and intersection of each pair of beams are fitted with decorated bronze caps and front part of the brackets supporting the largest bells are cast in the shape of animals. The longer pair of main beams are provided with extra support in the middle in the form of two slender bronze columns.

 

In 1992, Ma Chengyuan, director of the Shanghai Museum, purchased the 3,000-year-old Jin Hou Su bianzhong (晉侯穌鐘) from the Hong Kong antique market. The bells had been looted from the tombs of the rulers of the State of Jin and smuggled out of China. The bells are now listed by the Chinese government as one of the first 64 national treasures forbidden to be exhibited abroad.

 


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