A Beijing tale: The Bronze Bell in Gulou’s Tower

Under the Ming dynasty, there was an important rule: Beijing City’s gates had to be opened and closed precisely at specified hours. Since there were no clocks, the population was kept informed of the current time by bells. Those bells had to be heard all over the city and because of Beijing’s size, simple normal ones’ sound range was too limited. For this reason, the Ming emperor ordered that a new large bronze bell had to be crafted for Beijing.

This new bell was to replace the iron bell at the top of the Bell Tower, the very same Bell tower that still can be seen in Gulou Dajie (the area between Gulou Dajie subway station and the Houhai Lake), erected right in the middle of Beijing’s North-South axis. The original iron bell was not powerful enough; its sound couldn’t reach some distant districts of Beijing city.

The Emperor appointed a man named Deng to design and cast a bell made of bronze that would be two stories high, with a diameter of 10 feet and a weight of several tons.

The bell was crafted in a place which nowadays is still called Zhu Zhong Chang, “the Bell foundry”, a small Hutong west of Gulou Dajie.

With the technology available at that time, casting a Bell was no easy task. Melting bronze tends to become cold very quickly; therefore the bell had to be realized in several tiny fastidious steps which overall represented a very slow and uncertain process.

After several days of hard work, Deng’s craftsmen crew had only managed to finish the base of the bell and there was very little time left. Deng was full of despair and running short of ideas to have its task completed.

In those times, there was a legend believed among the bell founders that if a young girl was thrown in the melting bronze, then it would just stop becoming cold. However, Deng was totally unable face the simple thought that a young person had to be sacrificed.

One evening, as he was despaired and talking about this with his wife, his young daughter Hehua walked past their room and she heard the conversation.

The next morning, as Deng was not at the foundry, Hehua walked in there wearing a red dress, a red coat and red shoes. The workers saw her and waived hello. Hehua walked towards the large furnace where the melting bronze was happily dancing and the heath excruciating. As the workers talked without looking at her, she seized the opportunity and jumped on the scaffold. She shouted “Mum, Dad, we will meet again in a next life! “ and threw herself inside the liquid bronze. Everyone was horrified and tried to rescue her, but the only thing a worker could grasp was a single red shoe.

Deng arrived at the workshop and learned what just happened, stuck with pain, hopeless, he decided that his daughter would not have died in vain. He asked the workers to cast the bell at once. They obeyed and managed to complete the magnificent bronze bell that was required for Beijing city.

Until recently, its beautiful and clear sound, a bright “dong dong dong”, could be heard all over Beijing, but, sometimes, when the weather was bad, people could hear “xie xie xie” (shoe shoe shoe in Chinese), as if Hehua was calling to get her red shoe back.

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