Tempo of time
Updated: 2013-03-08 07:38
By Zhang Lei (China Daily)
Drum and bell towers at Xi'an, a city famed for the Terracotta Warriors. Provided to China Daily
Drum and bell towers marked the order of the day for centuries across China - when to wake up, shop or return home
There's a blog in China called Ancient City Bell Tower, which has built a significant and growing following by tweeting the sound of a bell being rung every hour on the hour. Perhaps catering to some longing for the distant past, the site has attracted 440,000 followers by simply updating a public timekeeping system that has existed in China for thousands of years.
Xu Wentian, a researcher at the Chinese Traditional Art Association, says, "This craze is not because people just haven't found a better way to tell the time of course. It is rather a reflection of the fact that the Chinese in general admire perseverance, which many believe is in scarce supply in modern Chinese society."
The drum and bell tower system of timekeeping began during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24) and persisted until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) when Western clocks made it irrelevant. Its purpose was to keep time and order throughout the country's major cities.
Large cities before the Song Dynasty (960-1279) were protected by an outer wall and within that lay many smaller communities and two markets - the east market and the west market. At the heart of the city was a main drum and bell tower, and at each of the city gates a smaller drum or bell tower. Within each community there would also be a person appointed to keep time using a hand-held drum.
The drums and bells would announce when it was time to wake and begin work, and when it was time to return to your community at the midnight curfew when individual community gates would be locked. They would also announce the opening and closing of the eastern market where luxury goods were sold and the western market where other items, including foreign goods, could be found.
China's most prestigious drum and bell tower is at the heart of the ancient part of Xi'an, a city famed for the Terracotta Warriors.
Although new buildings have sprouted up around Xi'an, many dwarfing the drum and bell towers, they remain the symbol of the city in most people's minds.
Wang Ping, a local resident, says many of her happiest memories growing up were around the city's drum and bell tower area.
"However many modern developments appear and whatever the city becomes in the future, the drum and bell towers in my opinion will never fade in our city's history," she says.
"My parents used to take me to East Avenue right beside the bell tower every weekend to buy daily necessities. It was very crowded there at weekends. I remember watching all kinds of street vendors. With the drum and bell tower looming above your head, you get a surreal feeling that you live in the good, old and prosperous ancient Chang'an city."
Chang'an, renamed Xi'an in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), was the capital of China for 13 dynasties, including the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD), which is where the Han Chinese get their name, and the Tang Dynasty (618-907), which is widely regarded as the most powerful period of Chinese influence across East Asia.
Xian's current drum and bell towers were built in 1380 during the Ming Dynasty. Chang'an was long ruined by the end of the Tang Dynasty, but was later rebuilt on a smaller scale and renamed Xi'an. According to historic records, the ancient city that currently sits at the center of Xi'an is an eighth of the size of the original Chang'an.
"Travelers to Xi'an are amazed by the magnificent drum and bell towers and sometimes mistake them for Tang Dynasty heritage, conjuring up scenes in which officials lined up in the morning when the drum and bell towers sounded out, waiting for the emperor to receive them in the royal palace," says Liu Yunwei, a researcher at Shaanxi Folk Art Society.
"Unfortunately the Tang bell tower was destroyed long before the Ming bell tower, but if it is any consolation the bell is a real piece of Tang heritage."
Xi'an's drum and bell towers are China's biggest and best-preserved timekeeping towers, built earlier than their Beijing equivalents. The wooden bell tower stands 36 meters tall on a brick base approximately 35.5 meters long and 8.6 meters high on each side.
It has three layers of eaves but only two stories with a staircase spiraling up the inside. The gray bricks of the square base, the dark green glazed tiles on the eaves and the gold plating on the roof are all Ming architectural characteristics.
The drum tower is about the same height but slightly wider and rectangular in shape.
According to legend, Ming Dynasty Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, fearing someone might attempt to take his throne, had the country's largest drum and bell towers built as a deterrent.
"Apart from their function of telling the time, drum and bell towers in ancient Chinese feng shui hold strong power over an area," says Liu.
Xi'an's original drum and bell towers faced each other in Guangji Street, at the center of the city, but 200 years later the bell tower was moved to its current position, which is around 1,000 meters to the east. According to legend the bell tower was moved to counter the power of a 1000-year-old turtle monster that was diffusing disease from that point. But official records reveal a much less dramatic truth - that the tower was moved for commercial reasons.
The original bell no longer sits in Xi'an's bell tower. "The Jingyun Bell, which is 247 centimeters tall and 165 cm in diameter at the mouth, was built in 711. It previously stood in Jinglong Temple during the Tang Dynasty and was used in the bell tower. After the tower was moved the bell would never strike out loud again, no matter what people tried," Liu says.
(China Daily 03/08/2013 page18)