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Sacred Sounds: The Bells of Ancient China
Opens August 26, 2006, at The Minneapolis Institute of Art

Minneapolis, MN, August 30, 2006—The world’s first bells were produced in China around 3000 B.C. These bell chimes from China’s Bronze Age (c. 1800–221 B.C.) not only functioned as musical instruments within orchestras, but also were brilliantly cast works of art with beautiful surface ornamentation. Opening August 26, 2006, the exhibition Sacred Sounds: The Bells of Ancient China, will feature an extremely rare set of twenty Bronze-Age bells, thought to be the largest set of ancient bells on public view in America, along with a soundtrack of fascinating ancient ritual music played on Chinese bells.

Our understanding of ancient Chinese musicology was enhanced in 1978 when Chinese archaeologists uncovered the 5th-century B.C. tomb of Marquis Yi of the ancient state of Zeng, in Hupeh province. Lavishly furnished and virtually undisturbed, its 7,000 funerary objects allowed unprecedented insights into late Chou aristocratic culture. The tomb’s four wooden chambers, though filled with water, yielded an astonishing number burial objects, including bronze ritual vessels, musical instruments, weapons, horse-and-chariot ornaments, lacquer ware, gold, jade, and wooden and bamboo articles.

The tomb became famous for what was discovered in the central chamber, arguably the most spectacular surviving example of an orchestral collection of musical instruments from the ancient world. The 125 instruments included two types of ancient stringed zithers; wind instruments such as pan pipes, a reed mouth-organ, flutes, and percussion instruments, including sets of stone chimes, bronze bells, and a large drum.

Similar instruments were known to be from China’s Bronze Age but the magnificent set of 65 graduated bronze bells (bian zhong), ranging in size from 8 inches to 5 feet, was unprecedented. The smallest bell weighs 5 pounds, the largest 447 pounds, for a total of 2 tons. The bells were found perfectly intact, neatly suspended on their massive wooden frame after 2,400 years of burial. On loan from a private collection, the set of bronze bells on view in Sacred Sounds dates to about the same time as the Marquis Yi bells.

Although the MIA’s bronze collection already includes fine individual bells selected from different stylistic groups, this show better explains how graduated sets of bells, along with other instruments, were used in orchestral performances as a vital component of ancient rituals. The use of mallets rather than clappers allowed one player to handle more than one or two bells at a time. Chimes like these were part of a ritual orchestra that, along with bronze vessels, were used in elaborate ancestral and political ceremonies. The music most likely set the cadence of the sacred and solemn rituals.

These precision-toned ritual instruments were technologically much more complex than ceremonial vessels. Exact wall thickness, size, proportion, shape, and high quality alloys were necessary for tonal perfection. The yung-cheng bells of the Marquis Yi set, for instance, each produces two tones depending on where it is struck. All bear cast inscriptions that specify their exact notes; the scale of the whole set is not unlike the modern western diatonic scale in C-major in the range of five octaves.

Recent archaeological discoveries in combination with ancient records have allowed Chinese experts to interpret a great deal about early China’s acoustic principles and music theory. Remarkably, ancient music played on the Marquis Yi bell set has now been carefully recorded. This brief but beautiful soundtrack, played during the run of Sacred Sounds, should leave the visitor with a new and deepened sense of China’s extraordinary Bronze Age and the solemn ceremonial conduct that was such an important part of this ancient civilization.

Sacred Sounds: The Bells of Ancient China is organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Art and is on view from August 26, 2006, through April 8, 2007.

About the Minneapolis Institute of Art
The Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA), home to one of the finest encyclopedic art collections in the country, houses nearly 100,000 works of art representing more than 5,000 years of world history. Highlights of the permanent collection include European masterworks by Rembrandt van Rijn, Nicolas Poussin, and Vincent van Gogh, as well as internationally significant collections of Asian art, decorative arts, Modernism, photographs, and African and Native American art.

General admission is always free. Some special exhibitions have a nominal admission fee. Museum hours: Sunday, 11 A.M.–5 P.M.; Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 10 A.M.–5 P.M.; Thursday, 10 A.M.–9 P.M.; Closed Monday. For additional information, call (612) 870-3131 or visit