Ancient Bells of China Resound Throughout Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery

July 12, 2017


“Resound: Bells of Ancient China” will feature more than 60 bells and noisemakers that span the entire length of the Chinese Bronze Age (ca. 1800 B.C.–9 A.D.) and explore the development of this important musical tradition. The exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery will open Oct. 14 as a part of the museums’ reopening weekend celebration.

Bells were among the first bronze objects made in China, beginning at least by 1600 B.C. Distinct musical cultures involving these instruments flourished simultaneously in north and south China, and cultural exchange accelerated advances in form and sound in both regions. The melodic use of tuned bells signals the technical sophistication of the later Chinese Bronze Age.

The bells included in the exhibition are largely drawn from the Sackler’s extensive collections and range in size from 1 inch to almost 3 feet in height; they reflect every major development in the evolution of ancient Chinese bell design and related musical practice.

“Resound” explores the chronological and developmental phases in the design and use of bells; the earliest bells (ling) and jingles were made for animals and chariots (1600–1000 B.C.) and created sound through movement; the most common are small bells made for dog collars. Much larger bells with clappers (bo), also made to be suspended mouth down, were developed in the Yangzi River valley (1300–800 B.C.). Nao bells, designed to be played mouth upwards, were struck on the outside with mallets. Made in different sizes, small versions were used musically in sets not unlike modern hand bells (1300–1000 BCE). The development of bell sets on a much larger scale both in size and number dates to the second half of the Bronze Age (1050–300 B.C.). These bells (niu, bo, yong and goudiao), are lens-shaped in horizontal cross-section and have the capacity to produce two different notes.

The exhibition features a large number of these advanced instruments, including a set of six matched bells of graduated size. They would have been used melodically in ensembles with reeds, strings and percussion.

Additional bells included in the exhibition are signaling bells used in warfare (zheng) (600–100 B.C.) and miniatures made solely for burial with the dead (300 B.C.–9 A.D.).

“Resound” integrates new technologies that will encourage visitors to explore acoustics and experience the unique properties of ancient Chinese bells as well as allow them to “see sound.” One interactive lets museumgoers strike a replica Chinese bell to produce two distinct notes and watch a digital display of its sounds. A second station allows visitors to “play” the museum’s six-bell set (500–400 B.C.) virtually on a touch screen, hearing the 12 real notes first heard 2,500 years ago.

These same 12 notes were shared with three contemporary composers who were commissioned to create soundscapes for the gallery. The soundscapes, accompanied by moving-image projections that interpret the sounds into a visual experience, were composed by Hugh Livingston, Norman Lowery and Doug van Nort. These composers have used the given bell sounds to form melodies, textures, rhythms and forms that bring an ancient tradition to life in the 21st century.

As part of the preparation for the three-volume Ritual Bronzes from the Arthur M. Sackler Collection, all of the Sackler bells were thoroughly studied; many were analyzed acoustically.

Programs related to the exhibition will include performances of new compositions inspired by the sounds of ancient Chinese bells by local and international musicians, art-making workshops, after-hours events and curator-led gallery talks. A highlight of the 2017–18 program season will be the Washington, D.C., premiere of Augusta Read Thomas’ “Resounding Earth” for 125 Asian bells by the Grammy Award-winning Third Coast Percussion ensemble, April 28, 2018.


The Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and the adjacent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., together comprise the nation’s museums of Asian art. It contains one of the most important collections of Asian art in the world, featuring more than 40,000 objects ranging in time from the Neolithic to the present day, with especially fine groupings of Islamic art, Chinese jades, bronzes and paintings and the art of the ancient Near East. The galleries also contain important masterworks from Japan, ancient Egypt, South and Southeast Asia and Korea, as well as the Freer’s noted collection of works by American artist James McNeill Whistler.

The National Museum of Asian Art is a part of the Smithsonian, the world’s largest museum, education and research complex, which is dedicated to the increase and diffusion of knowledge.

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