A Glimpse into Chinese Musical Instruments Through a Qianlong Gilt-Bronze Bell from Yamanaka Collection

Choosing the right music can lift the mood in the room instantly. It is equally important to choose the right musical instruments to perform with. Perhaps it is the reason why Chinese emperors take musical instruments very seriously. On top of its functionality, imperial music instruments made for the use in court are also works of art that manifest exquisite craftsmanship. One example is a gilt-bronze bell, bianzhong, from the Qianlong period. So how was this bell used to perform music for the Emperor Qianlong?

An imperial gilt-bronze bell, Bianzhong, dated by inscription to the eighth year of the Qianlong Reign

In fact, this bell belongs to a set of sixteen other bells of this type, which was known as bianzhong. The set provides twelve musical tones with four repeated notes in lower or higher octaves. They were arranged in accordance with the musical note of the individual bells, which was determined by their thickness.

The twelve Chinese musical tones are arranged in the following sequence: Huangzhong (1st), Dalü (2nd), Taicu (3rd), Jiazhong (4th), Guxi (5th), Zhonglü (6th), Ruibin (7th), Linzhong (8th), Yize (9th), Nanlü (10th), Wuyi (11th), and Yingzhong (12th). The four repeated bells of lower octaves, making up the total of sixteen, are Bei Yize, Bei Nanlü, Bei Wuyi, and Bei Yingzhong. In Chinese musicology, the twelve main tones alternately provide yang and yin notes.

Bells like the current example would have been suspended in two tiers of eight, attached to a tall lacquered wooden frame, and were part of the assemblages required on certain formal occasions at court. Sets of bells were part of a group of musical instruments that were required by court protocol to play the dignified music which formed an important part of significant occasions. This music was divided into two types and played by two sets of musicians.

Bianzhong of Marquis Yi of Zeng, Warring States period | Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan

Bianzhong bells were essential in conducting Confucian rituals at the Imperial altars and other state ceremonies, including ascension ceremonies when a new emperor took the throne, formal banquets and other court assemblies, and during processions of the Imperial Guard.

The bell we introduce here is incised on one side characters beinanlu, indicating that the bell's musical pitch is the low octave of the tenth note. The current bell was one of the heaviest and would have been hung from the lower horizontal beam of the frame, third from the right. The other side of the bell bears the reign mark Qianlong ba nian zhi, 'made during the eighth year of the Qianlong reign', equivalent to AD 1743. It was in this year that the Qianlong Emperor made his first ‘Northern Tour’ to visit the ancestral tombs in Mukden (modern day Shenyang in Liaoning province).

With a height of 27.3cm and a weight of 14.9kg, the bell is cast to the exterior in high relief with a wide band depicting a pair of five-clawed dragons surrounded by scrolling clouds above crashing waves.

Sadajirō Yamanaka (1866-1936) was the founder of Yamanaka & Co.

This imperial bell will go under the hammer at Christie’s in London on 5 November, valued at £800,000-1.2m (US$1.03m-1.55m). It was formerly in the collection of Sadajiro Yamanaka (1866-1936), the founder of Yamanaka & Co. It was also once in the collection of famous American businessman William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951). It went up for auction in 2015 at Sotheby’s New York and sold for US$1.21m after premium.

Two comparable dragon-decorated bells, dated to 1744, are in the Palace of Fontainebleau. These bells appear to be incised with the characters, Nanlü, the 10th tone, and Yingzhong, the 12th tone.

Two imperial bianzhong in the Empress’ Chinese Museum at Fontainebleau

A Qianlong bianzhong in the Empress’ Chinese Museum at Fontainebleau

Bell (top right-hand corner) was illustrated in London News

A set of gold bells, the 55th year of Qianlong | The Palace Museum, Beijing

A set of sixteen gold bells bearing the marks ‘Qianlong wushiwu nianzhi’ (made in 55th year of Qianlong reign, equivalent to AD 1790), is also preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing. This gold set was given to the Qianlong Emperor by officials in celebration of his eightieth birthday. Being gold, rather than gilded bronze, they would not have produced clear notes when struck and were thus symbolic and for display.

Highlights from Christie’s London Fall 2019

A Magnificent Rare Imperial Gilt-bronze Bell, Bianzhong
Qianlong Period, Dated by Inscription to the Eighth Year of the Qianlong Reign, Corresponding to 1743

Lot no.: 85
Height: 27.3cm
Weight: 14.9kg
​Provenance (consolidated by The Value):

  • With Yamanaka & Co., Ltd.
  • The American Art Galleries, New York, The Notable Yamanaka Collection of Artistic Oriental Objects and Decorative Art, 5 February 1921, lot 579.
  • Collection of William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), purchased from the above auction.
  • Collection of Blanche Wilbur Hill (former daughter-in-law of William Randolph Hearst), purchased from the above collection on 9 January 1961.
  • Sotheby's New York, 15-16 September 2015, lot 160.

Estimate: £800,000 - 1,200,000

A Very Rare Faux Bronze' Moon Flask
Qianlong Impressed Six-character Seal Mark and of the Period (1736-1795)

Lot no.: 154
Height: 43.2cm

  • Collection of O. du Sartel, prior to 1881
  • Sale of the collection of O. du Sartel, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 3-5 April 1882, lot 130.
  • Property from a private French collection.

Estimate: £600,000 - 800,000

A Very Rare and Magnificent Pair of Imperial Embellished Lapis Lazuli ‘Da Ji’ Double-gourd-form Plaques
Qianlong Period (1736-1795)

Lot no.: 116
Height: 48.2cm

  • Collection of Daniel Beale (1759-1842), acquired in China in the 19th century.

Estimate: £120,000 - 180,000

A Massive Painted Pottery Figure of a Camel and Rider

Lot no.: 4
Height: 78.1cm

  • Acquired in Hong Kong 2 November 1989
  • With Priestley & Ferraro, London, 2002
  • Collection of a European Nobleman

Estimate: £80,000 - 120,000

A Famille Rose Turquoise-ground Tibetan-style Vase, Benbaping

Jiaqing Six-character Seal Mark in Iron-red and of the Period (1796-1820)
Lot no.: 191
Height: 26.6cm

  • The Collection of a Noble Italian Consul based in China during the period 1907-1931.

Estimate: £80,000 - 120,000

A Pair of Doucai Conical 'Dragon' Bowls and Covers
Yongzheng Six-character Marks in Underglaze Blue Within Double Circles and of the Period (1723-1735)

Lot no.: 173
Diameter: 20cm

  • H.R.H. Prince Henry, The Duke of Gloucester, K.G., K.T., K.P. (1900 - 1974)
  • Mrs. L. H. Goris; Christie's London, 12 May 1975, lot 155.
  • Private English Collection, amassed in the UK in the 1970s and thence by descent within the family.

Estimate: £30,000 - 50,000

Auction details

Auction house: Christie’s London
Sale: Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art
Lots offered: 227
1 Nov | 10am - 4:30pm
2 Nov | 12pm - 5pm
3 Nov | 12pm - 8pm
4 Nov | 9am - 4:30pm
Auction date:
5 Nov |10:30am (lot 1-97)
5 Nov |2pm (lot 98 - 227)