Lot 932. A rare imperial gilt-bronze ritual bell, bian zhong, Kangxi period, dated by cast incription to 1713; 30.5 cm.) high. Price realised USD 478,800 (Estimate: USD 400,000 – USD 600,000). © Christie's Images Ltd 2023.

Heavily cast in barrel form, the bell is decorated in high relief with horizontal bands of bosses alternating with the Daoist Trigrams flanking four vertical panels, one panel enclosing the reign date Kangxi wushier nian zhi, ‘made in the fifty-second year of Kangxi’, one with three characters bei wuyi, denoting its tone, and two panels filled with archaistic dragon motifs, all above a band of large flat discs. The flat top is surmounted by a suspension handle formed by two addorsed dragons.

Provenance: J. J. Lally & Co., New York.

NoteHeavily cast gilt-bronze bells of this type, known as bianzhong, took their inspiration from archaic bronzes of the Western Zhou dynasty (1100-771 BC). In the Qing dynasty, the imperial court closely followed Confucian ideals as set out in ancient Chinese classics such as the Book of the Zhou (Zhou Li) which advocated that rituals should commence with music. In the Qing dynasty, bianzhong were produced for the court and became an essential part of court ritual musical instruments. They were played during ceremonies at the imperial altars (in particular, the Temple of Heaven and Temple of Agriculture) and during formal banquets and state rites. The earliest Qing bells were part of a program reviving season rituals to be performed by the emperor, reinforcing his claim to the Mandate of Heaven to bring harmony to China.

The present bell is part of a graduated set of sixteen, each of which is cast with varied thicknesses to provide a range of twelve standard musical tones with four additional repeated notes in lower octaves. Each bell is cast on one side with its respective musical tons, opposite the reign mark, and together they appear in the following sequence: 1st, huangzhong; 2nd, dalu; 3rd, taicu; 4th, jiazhong; 5th, guxi; 6th, zhonglu; 7th, ruibin; 8th, lingzhong; 9th, yize; 10th, nanlu; 11th, wuyi (as cast on the present bell); and 12th, yingzhong. In Chinese musicology, the twelve main tones alternately provide a Yang, positive, and Yin, negative note. The four repeated bells of lower octaves, thus making up the total of sixteen, are pei yize, pei nanlu, pei wuyi, and pei yingzhong.

All sixteen bianzhong would have been suspended in two tiers of eight and attached to tall wooden frames, as depicted in a court painting by Guiseppe Castiglione entitled, 'Imperial Banquet in Wanshu Garden', illustrated by Chuimei Ho and Bennet Bronson, Splendors of China's Forbidden City, The Field Museum, Chicago, p. 52, pl. 42. The bells are arranged in accordance to their thickness and respective musical tone. A carillion of sixteen bells is illustrated in Life in the Forbidden City of Qing Dynasty, The Forbidden City Publishing House, 2007, pp. 30-31, no. 50.

There appear to be two groups of these gilt-bronze bells dating to the Kangxi period: the first, dated to the 52nd year (1713) and the second group to the 54th year (1715). A very similar gilt-bronze bell cast with the Eight Trigrams and an inscription indicating it was made in the 52nd year of the reign of Kangxi (1713) is in the collection of the Palace Museum Beijing, illustrated by Sun Zhaohua, Qing gong bianzhong zhizuo kao (A Review of Musical Instrument Chime’s Process in the Qing Court), Palace Museum Journal, Beijing, 2020, No. 4, p. 21, pl. 4, and is described by the author as one of a few sets kept in the Forbidden City for use in ritual ceremonies at the Imperial Ancestral Temple (Tai miao) and the Hall for Ancestral Worship (Fengxiandian).

Further gilt-bronze bells dating to the 52nd year of Kangxi include a group of five from the Audrey B. Love Collection sold at Christie's New York, 20 October 2004, lot 455; an example sold at Christie's New York, 29 November 1984, lot 554; and one from the Lord and Lady Hesketh Collection sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 9 October 2007, lot 1327. A pair of bells dating to the 54th year of Kangxi (1715), was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 27 May 2009, lot 1818.

Christie's. J. J. Lally & Co.New York, 23 march 2023