Drum and Bell Towers

Beijing, China

Introduction to the Drum and Bell Towers

The Drum and Bell Towers (GuLou & ZhongLou) are situated at the northern end of the central axis of the Inner City, to the east of HouHai (and just south of GuLou DaJie subway station).

Drum and Bell Towers are a common feature of Chinese cities - and of Chinese temples.

Bells and drums were musical instruments in ancient China. Later, they were used to announce the time - the Bell Tower and Drum Tower had this function during the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties. The times and patterns varied, but in general only the bell was rung during the night. You can still hear the beats from the ancient Drum Tower even now.

Outside the Drum Tower

The Bell Tower and Drum Tower of Beijing were listed among the first batch of cultural relics under municipal protection in 1957, and listed as cultural relics under state-level protection in 1996.

The Drum Tower

The Drum Tower was the time keeping center for the whole city and was equipped with bronze clepsydras (water clocks) and drums that were beaten to mark the hours.

The Drum Tower

There were once four bronze clepsydras, reputed to date from the Song Dynasty. Set between these four devices was a large bronze gong, which through a series of mechanical devices was linked to the water clocks and sounded each quarter of an hour. When the system of telling time was changed to use slow burning coils of incense, which burned for hours, the clepsydras fell into disuse. Certain key hours were marked by drum beats.

The Drum Tower was built in 1272 during the reign of Kublai Khan (Yuan Dynasty, 1271-1368), at which time it stood at the very heart of the Mongol capital Dadu. It was then known as the 'Tower of Orderly Administration' (QiZhengLou).

In 1420, under the Ming Emperor YongLe, the building was reconstructed a little to the east of the original site and in 1800, under the Qing Emperor JiaQing, large-scale renovations were carried out.

The Drum Tower is a wooden, two-story building with three layers of upturned eaves and a height of 47 meters.

The first level of the Drum Tower is a solid square terrace four meters high, 55.6 meters long and 30 meters wide. The front and rear of the terrace have three arched openings and the two sides have one opening each. The broad, squat, multi-eaved wooden structure built atop the terrace is impressive with its red walls and grey glazed roof, edged in green.

In ancient times the upper story of the building housed 25 drums, of which only one original (the largest) survives; the others are replicas. Sword marks on the side of the original drum is a legacy of the Eight-Power Allied Forces' invasion of Beijing in 1900.

In 1924, the name of the building was changed to the 'Tower of Realizing Shamefulness' (MingChiLou) and objects related to the Eight-Power Allied Forces’ invasion of Beijing - and later the May 30th Massacre of 1925 - were put on display.

In the 1980s, after much repair, the Bell and Drum Towers were opened to tourists. Today, the upper story of the Drum Tower serves as the People’s Cultural Hall of the East City District.

The Bell Tower

Behind the Drum Tower stands the Bell Tower, double-eaved, with gray stone walls and a black glazed roof, edged in green. Like its partner to the south, the Bell Tower was originally built in 1272 (Yuan Dynasty) and rebuilt in 1420. However it burned down during the 18th century and was rebuilt again in 1745. It is slightly taller than the drum tower at 47.9 meters and still holds the original bell, in excellent condition, though this bell is not rung anymore.

The Bell Tower

Each face of the base of the building has an arched opening and each side of the Bell Pavilion, which stands on the platform, has an arched gateway also.

The Bell Tower first came into use during the reign of the Ming Emperor YongLe, when it was converted from the main hall of the former Temple of Eternal Peace (WanNingSi), which had been built during the Yuan Dynasty.

The new Bell Tower was destroyed by fire after only a brief existence and it was not until 1747 that Emperor QianLong undertook its reconstruction with an attractive and durable stone structure. This building was so sturdy that the only damage that it suffered during the TangShan earthquake in 1976 was the loss of a single stone animal head that had been decorating the roof.

Inside the Drum Tower

The Bell Tower originally housed a huge iron bell. But because its toll was not loud enough, this was replaced by a massive cast bronze bell over 10 inches thick and weighing 63-tonnes that is still in perfect condition today. The iron bell was moved to the back of the DrumTower where it has remained for over 500 years.

To cast such a perfect and huge bell was extremely difficult and it purportedly took many attempts. However, once the bell was installed, the chimes could be heard clearly and resonantly all across the city - for over 20 kilometers. As recently as 1924, the bronze bell could be heard ringing out the 7:00 pm chime.

The bell is inscribed with "It was built on a lucky day, month and year under the reign of Emperor YongLe". It is the biggest ancient bell in china.

The Legend of the Girl who Cast the Bell

According to legend, a master blacksmith named Deng had tried unsuccessfully for over a year to cast the huge bell comissioned from him and was fast running out of time. On the eve of his last attempt, his daughter, fearing that a further delay would bring blame on her father, decided to sacrifice her life in order to move the gods to bring about a perfect casting, and she suddenly threw herself into the molten bronze.

The casting was a success and the emperor, moved by the young girl's spirit of sacrifice, named her as 'Goddess of the Golden Furnace' and built a temple in her honor near to the foundry. To the ordinary people, she is remembered as the 'Goddess Who Cast the Bell'.

Visiting the Drum and Bell Towers

In both the Drum and Bell Towers, you can take steep stairways to the top and look out over the city. Drumming performances take place every hour in the Drum Tower.

Open daily 9-4:30.

Nearest subway station is GuLouDaJie (line 2); on exit, head south for 5 to 10 minutes.

The Drum Tower

The Bell Tower

Side of the Drum Tower with the Bell Tower in the distance

Inside the Drum Tower

Video of the Drum and Bell Towers

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