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Episode 30 - Chinese bronze bell

Chinese bronze bell (made around 2,500 years ago) found in Shanxi province

This is the music that was played at the ceremony marking Britain's handover of Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China in 1997. The choice of music on each side had some very interesting aspects. The British played the 'Last Post' on a bugle; the Chinese a specially composed piece of music called 'Heaven, Earth, Mankind'; part of it played on a set of ancient bells. On the European side, a solo instrument connected with war and conflict; on the Chinese side, a group of instruments playing in harmony. It may be stretching it a bit, but I think you can see in that choice of instruments, two very different views of how society works. Bells in China go back thousands of years, and they carry great resonances for Chinese people - so perhaps this was the Chinese leaders' way of reminding Hong Kong of the cultural and political traditions it would be rejoining. My object in this programme is, as you will by now have guessed, a bell, and through this bell I'm going to be exploring Confucius's ideas of how a society can work in harmony.

"What Confucius and the other political philosophers of the day were trying to do, was to devise a philosophy that would establish the predominance and the unity of one ruler." (Isobel Hilton)

"Every single bell truly does have its own unique voice. It's difficult to compare one to the other." (Evelyn Glennie)

Our bell is about the same age as the bells that were played at the Hong Kong ceremony, so have another listen - they are about two and a half thousand years old.

When those bells were first played in the fifth century BC, China was in military and political disarray, essentially just a collection of competing fiefdoms, all battling for supremacy. There was widespread social instability, but also lively intellectual debate about what a society ought ideally to be, and by far the most famous and influential contributor to these debates was Confucius. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the insecurity of the times, he places a very high value on peace and harmony. We're told that one of his celebrated sayings was: "Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without." For Confucius, music was a metaphor of a harmonious society, and its performance could actually help bring that better society about. It's a view of the world that still resonates strongly in China today, and it brings us back to our bell.

I hope Confucius would approve that I want to speak of him through a bell. I'm standing next to one now - I can even tap it for you, to give you some sense of the bronze it's made of. As it's a museum piece, and as it's two and a half thousand years old, we don't play it very often, and as you can hear, it's not perhaps the most thrilling sound but, if we listen to composer Tan Dun's bells, they give us a very good idea of what this sort of bell would once have sounded like.

The bell here at the British Museum is large and very handsome. It's about the size of a beer barrel, but is not circular, but elliptical. In fact, it reminds me of nothing so much as an outsize Swiss cowbell. Nonetheless, it's a pretty impressive sight. It's covered in decoration, elaborate strap-work that swirls all over, round medallions with dragons' heads swallowing geese and, at the top, two magnificent standing dragons holding the handle from which the bell would have hung. This was a bell that was not only made to be heard, but to be seen.

Like the Hong Kong bells we heard earlier on, our bell would have originally been part of a set owned by a warlord or by a powerful official in one of the numerous small states. Owning a set of bells - and, even more, being able to afford the orchestra to play them - were visible, and of course audible, signs of great wealth and status. The principal message of our bell would have originally been about its owner's power, but it would also have represented that owner's view of society and the cosmos.

Confucius himself spoke a great deal about music, and although many of his sayings on the subject have been lost, enough has survived to let us know that he saw music as playing a central part in the education of the individual - and indeed in the shaping of the state.

At the core of the teachings of Confucius, was the fundamental need for every individual to understand and accept their place in the world. It was perhaps in this spirit that sets of Chinese bells took on such philosophical importance - reflecting the diversity but also the harmony that's created when each different bell is perfectly tuned and played in its proper sequence. Here's Isobel Hilton, writer and expert on modern China:

"Harmony was very important to Confucius, and the way Confucius conceived of it was that he had an idea that men could best be governed by virtue, by benevolence, by righteousness, and if the leader exemplified those virtues, then so would his people. And by cultivating these virtues, you did away with the need for punishment and law, because you ruled by a sense of what was appropriate - and by shame. The application of all these ideas produced a harmonious society."

So a harmonious society is the consequence of virtuous individuals working together in a complementary way. It's a short step for a philosopher to see, in a set of highly tuned, graduated bells, a metaphor for this ideal society - everyone in their allotted place, making music with their fellows.

Bells in China go back about five thousand years. The earliest would have been simple hand bells, with a clapper inside to produce the sound. Later the clapper was abandoned, and bronze bells were played by being hit on the outside with a hammer. Our single bell would once have been part of a set of either nine or fourteen. Each would have been a different size, and would produce two different tones, depending on where it was struck. We asked the famous percussionist Evelyn Glennie to come and have a look at our bell, and to talk about the power of bells:

"Every single bell has its own unique sound. It can be a very tiny sound that you've really got to pay attention to, or it can just be a huge, huge resonant experience that a whole community can register. I remember in the early years when I went to China, and they had a whole rack of bells that decorated the back of the stage, and of course I couldn't help but go up to them and just admire the craftsmanship that went into this huge, huge structure. However, I did ask if I could possibly strike one, and I was given this long wooden pole, and of course the whole body has to be implemented in order to create a sound, and the right striking point is particularly important. And I think there was this immense respect as to what actually I was going to do, you know. It wasn't just a case of, 'Well, hit the bell, or something'. This was something that I wanted to really treasure, and it was an incredible experience to just create that one strike, and then to really live the sound experience of the resonance after that strike had been made."

By European standards, these ancient Chinese bronze bells are enormous. Nothing on this scale would be cast in Europe until the Middle Ages, over fifteen hundred years later. But the role of bells in China could go far beyond the musical. To produce perfect tones they had absolutely standardised shapes, and the consistency of these shapes meant that the bells could also be used to measure volume. You had, so to speak, a pint bell or a quart bell. And as the amount of bronze in each one was also carefully controlled, they could just as well provide standard weights. So you could have, as it were, a hundredweight bell, and so on. So there is a sense in which a set of bells in ancient China could also serve as a sort of local weights and measures office, bringing harmony to commerce as well as society.

Intriguingly, bells also played a major roll in the etiquette of war. The Chinese held that no attack could be considered fair and above board without the sounding of bells or drums, from then on you could honourably fight without restraint. But more commonly, the bells were used for rituals and entertainments at court, played at grand occasions, banquets and sacrificing ceremonies, the complex music of the bells marked the rhythm of court lives.

The bells, and the ancient methods of playing them, travelled well beyond the boundaries of China, and the closest surviving form of this ancient music is today found not in China, but in Korean court music that originated in the twelfth century - and is still played in Korea now.

In Europe we rarely listen to music that is more than five or six hundred years old, but the music of the ancient Chinese bells has been resonating harmoniously for over two and a half thousand years, symbolising not only the sound of an era but the underlying political ideals of an ancient society and its modern successors. It's a Confucian principle that China once again finds very appealing today - although that hasn't always been the case. Here's Isobel Hilton again:

"Confucianism was really the soul of the Chinese state for the best part of two thousand years but, in the early twentieth century, it was really very strongly criticised by the modernisers, the revolutionaries, the people who blamed Confucianism for the decline of China in the previous two hundred years, and it fell out of favour. But Confucianism never really went away. Curiously enough, harmonious society is what we hear today on the lips of Chinese leaders. What the leadership today wants is a society that is more content, in which people are content, if you like, with their station, so no more class struggle; in which the leaders are seen to embody virtue as in the old Confucian idea. And it is their virtue that makes people accept their right to rule. So we've seen the taking of this very old idea of harmony, and we're seeing it in a modern form to justify a static political system, a system in which the right to rule is not questioned."

And bells are still going strong. The ancient bells used for the 1997 Hong Kong ceremony were played again at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Tan Dun was once more the composer. And Confucius is now, it seems, the flavour of the decade. He has his own 25 million dollar bio-pic, a best-selling book, a TV series and a hundred-part animated series on his teachings. The age of Confucius has come again.

It seems a happy coincidence that the sound of bells should bring us to the end of this part of our radio History of the World. I began with a two-million-year-old chopping tool, and we're pausing now with a 2,500-year-old bell, so we've come a long way in 30 programmes. I do hope you'll rejoin me on Radio 4 in a couple of months' time, when we'll have left the age of Confucian harmony for the age of empire and conquest, with Alexander the Great.

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