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Yongle Bell

The Yongle Bell was cast during the reign of Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It is said that when Emperor Chengzu (known as Yongle during his reign) moved the capital to Beijing, he initiated three great projects -- the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven and Yongle Bell. (This attests to the historical position of the Yongle Bell in those days.)

Emperor Taizu (Zhu Yuanzhang) overthrew the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and founded the Ming Dynasty. He made Nanjing the capital of China. In order to strengthen the frontier defense in the north, Zhu made his fourth son Zhu Di the Prince of Yan and gave Beiping to him as his domain. In 1398, Zhu Yuanzhang died and his grandson Zhu Yunwen succeeded the throne. Historically, he was known as Emperor Jianwen. After he came to power, he deeply felt a threat from various vassals with powerful troops under their command. Jianwen adopted the advice of Qi Tai, the minister of war, and Huang Zicheng, minister of the court of imperial sacrifices, to weaken the power of the vassals. In the sixth lunar month of the year when he ascended to the throne, the emperor began to depose Prince of Zhou, Prince of Xiang and three other princes in outlying areas. Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan, who had 100,000 troops under his command, was the most powerful vassal. He launched a punitive expedition against Qi and Huang under the pretext of "no honest ministers but treacherous officials in the imperial court," and won the war, seizing the throne in Nanjing. (Emperor Jianwen was nowhere to be found.) Qi Tai, Huang Zicheng and other senior officials, as well as their families, were executed. Tens of thousands of people were involved in the case and executed. In 1403, Zhu Di changed the reign title to Yongle and issued an imperial edict to "take Beiping as Beijing" (Northern Capital). He then decided to move the capital. In the first lunar month of the 19th year of the reign of Yongle (1421), Beijing became the capital.

According to the established law contained in the Veritable Records of Taizu that "a big bell can be cast only for those who made meritorious services," he ordered the casting of the big bell. The Yongle Bell was regarded as a "guardian" when Zhu Di moved the capital to Beijing. It was also a symbol of the greatest reverence of imperial power.

The Bell Tower

In the old days, there was another argument for the casting of the Yongle Bell. In the Ode to the Big Bell of the Temple of Awakening, Shen Deqian, a poet of the Qing Dynasty, wrote:

The swallow (Prince of Yah) flew to peck the boy.
A million troops advanced southward like worms.
Many were implicated and killed in cold blood.
Loyal officials were eliminated in a disaster.
The might of Buddha was relied on to wipe out the black karma.
The bell resounded through the gates of Heaven ...

The poet denounced Zhu Di for killing innocent people without discrimination to seize the throne and pointed out explicitly that Emperor Chengzu had the bell cast to "eliminate the black karma by relying on the might of Buddha." After he read this poem, Emperor Qianlong wrote the following:

How tragic and vicious the implication was!
Graves were scattered on both banks of the Longjiang.
The pen of a historian could hardly be avoided.
He confessed by dint of the Buddhist bell ...

In the capacity of emperor, Qianlong noted without restraint and more incisively that in the battle to usurp the throne Zhu Di killed countless people and cruelly implicated many others in the case and that he had the bell cast with a view to confessing by the dint of the bell.

No matter which argument holds true, Emperor Chengzu has really left behind an admirable and priceless treasure. Several hundred years have elapsed; the rise and fall of emperors have gone with the wind: But the Yongle Bell remains majestic. It is a crystallization of the superb skills of laboring people in ancient times. Today, the resounding strokes of the Yongle Bell carry the splendid civilization of the Chinese nation far beyond its borders.

Opinions are widely divided about when the Yongle Bell was cast, the casting technology, the inscriptions on the bell and the relocation of the bell. Even erroneous messages have been incorrectly relayed. The establishment of the Big Bell Temple Museum has made it possible to carry out comprehensive, thorough-going and systematic textual research on the Yongle Bell.

When Was the Yongle Bell Cast?

It was said that the big bell was cast in the second year of the reign of Yongle (1404). Another erroneous argument is that the big bell was cast after the death of Emperor Yongle. However, there is no scientific grounding for the two arguments. The former argument is based on the verse "cast in the second year of Yongle" in the Ode to the Big Bell written by Shen Deqian, a poet of the Qing Dynasty. When the ties between the Hongwu Bell and the Yongle Bell in Nanjing were investigated it was learned that when Shen Deqian arrived in Nanjing, the Hongwu Bell there had been lying on the ground for many years. Shen Deqian formed the faulty opinion that the bell had been cast in the second year of the reign of Yongle. The bell was located northwest of the Jiming (Cockcrow) Temple in Nanjing. In the "Ode to the Big Bell," Shen Deqian described the bell of the Big Bell Temple in Beijing and then wrote about the ties between the bell in Nanjing and the bell in Beijing:

I think of the place northwest of the Cockcrow.
The big bell is sleeping on the earth overgrown with weeds.
It was cast in the second year of Yongle
To take Heavenly credit for merits at two places.

Later, people took this as the basis to determining the year when the big bell of the Big Bell Temple was cast. They wrongly believed that the bell was cast in the second year of the reign of Yongle.

We have learned from many historical documents that the Yongle Bell was "cast in the days of Emperor Wen (namely, Emperor Yongle)," that "the bell was cast in the days of Emperor Chengzu (the dynastic title of Emperor Yongle)," and that the Yongle Bell was "an imperial bell of Emperor Wen." Cast on the east wall of the Yongle Bell were the words: "Made on an auspicious day of the reign of Yongle of the Great Ming" -- an inscription indicating that the bell was made by an imperial order. It is thus clear that the bell was cast undoubtedly during the reign of Yongle.

Is it possible to reach an opinion on the exact year?

In 1980, staff members of the museum found from the Jiaxing Edition of Tripitaka that the 188th case of the book was the Sutra of the Names of Buddha, Bhagavat, Tathagata, Bodhisattva, Arya and Miracle - working Buddhists (thereafter referred to as the Sutra of Names). The sutra consists of 40 fascicles. The first 20 (totaling more than 100,000 characters) were cast on the main part of the Yongle Bell. The sutra was completed in the 15th year of the reign of Yongle on Emperor Yongle's order. The preface and postscript of the Sutra of Names were written in the 15th year of the reign of Yongle. The block - printed edition of the Sutra of Names made on Emperor Yongle's demand was found later. Its content is identical to what has been collected in the Jiaxing Edition of Tripitaka. So, it seems the Yongle Bell could not have been cast before the 15th year of the reign of Yongle. Judging from the technological level of casting and the complexity of the task, it can be concluded that it took at least two or three years to prepare the mould of the Yongle Bell. The casting was done at one stroke, but the whole process -- from the first-phase preparations to the later work -- required three to five years. An acceptable assertion is that "the Yongle Bell was cast around the 18th year of Yongle (1420)."

The Site of Casting the Yongle Bell and Its Relocations in Beijing

According to the Extensive Anthologies of Tianfu, the Yongle Bell was cast at the Han- Language Sutra Depot located within the Gate of Desheng (Moral Victory). It seems that the Han- Language Sutra Depot was the site where the bell was cast. In the beginning of the 1980s, staff members from the museum conducted a survey. Although they did not find any traces of the Han- Language Sutra Depot, they did find a horizontal inscribed board from the window sill of a house in Zhuzhong (Casting Bells) Lane within the Gate of Desheng. The board bears the characters that mean "The golden furnace for casting bells, the Niangniang Miao (Temple of the Goddess of Fertility)." Later, from the Metal and Stone Department of the Beijing Library, they found three rubbings from stone tablets at the bell-casting Temple of the Goddess of Fertility: One was from a stone tablet inscribed by Liu Fangyuan in 1651 during the reign of Emperor Shunzhi, which referred to the bell-casting yard. Another was taken from an inscription made on a stone tablet by Daona, the abbot of the temple, in 1785 during the reign of Emperor Qianlong. The inscription contained a record of the rebuilding of the main hall of the bell-casting Temple of the Goddess of Fertility. The third stone tablet was erected in the seventh year of the reign of Emperor Daoguang (1827). The inscription refers to the bell-casting yard at the Temple of the Goddess of Fertility, west of the Drum Tower. The three stone tablets carried different appellations, but they were found in the same place. This is confirmed in the book Anecdotes of the Capital :

"The bell-casting yard is situated east of the Gate of Desheng. There is also the Zhenwu Miao (Temple of Genuine Prowess). Inside it is a stone tablet with an inscription written by Liu Fangyuan in the eighth year of the reign of Shunzhi (1651). The Huayan Bell was suspended in the Wanshou Si (Temple of Longevity) in the past. Now, it has been moved to the Juesheng Si (Temple of Awakening) in the north of the city."

The horizontal inscribed board at the bell-casting Temple of the Goddess of Fertility and the stone tablet erected in the seventh year of the reign of Daoguang have been collected by the Big Bell Temple.

But where was the Han-Language Sutra Depot? The former site was located at the Songzhu Temple and the adjacent Fayuan Temple and Zhizhu Temple. According to a stone tablet inscription on the Fayuan Temple:

"The Fayuan Temple is to the left of the Songzhu Temple. To the right is the Zhizhu Temple. The Buddhist temples are adjacent to each other. They are the sites of the former Han- Language Sutra Depot. During the reign of Yongle of the Ming Dynasty, lamas were invited to write Buddhist sutras. Hence, the names of the Ethnic-Languages Sutra Depot and the Han-Language Sutra Depot."

The Han- Language Sutra Depot was not a bell-casting workshop. According to the History of the Ming Court written by Liu Ruoyu during the reign of Wanli of the Ming Dynasty:

"The Han- Language Sutra Depot was set up in the Imperial City. … On the birthday of the emperor, the lunar New Year' s Day and the Festival of Dead Spirits, religious rites were performed at the palace. Grand ministers of the imperial household department paid their respects to Buddha and flew streamers like monks. They wore Buddhist caps, "kasayas" and black garments as monks did, but they kept their hair. When the service was over, they put on their official garments again."

The Han- Language Sutra Depot was an institution of Buddhist services under the charge of the palace treasury. So, it is not difficult to understand why the Yongle Bell "has always been stored at the Han-Language Sutra Depot" as described in the Brief Account of Sights in the Imperial Capital .

The Yongle Bell was carried from the bell-casting yard to the Han-Language Sutra Depot in the Imperial City for the first time in history. According to the Private Gleanings of the Wanli Reign,

"The Temple of Longevity was built at a site three and a half kilometers outside the Xizhimen (Straight West Gate). There are the Ethnic- Languages Sutra Depot and the Han-Language Sutra Depot. They have been out of repair for many years. Emperor Muzong had them repaired, but the project was not completed. Han-Language sutras were moved there."

So, the Yongle Bell was also moved to the Temple of Longevity during the reign of Emperor Wanli. Every day it was struck by six monks. It served as a musical instrument for blessings and Buddhist services. This was the bell's second move.

The Yongle Bell was transferred from the Temple of Longevity to the Temple of Awakening in a third move. Who made the decision? Almost all of the relevant historical documents maintain that it was Emperor Qianlong who ordered the move. In 1980, a memorial to the emperor from the China No 1 Historical Archives Museum was discovered. The memorial was recorded in the archives of memorials of the imperial household department in the fourth month of the 11th year of the Yongzheng period (1733). The full text is as follows:

"Imperial Prince Zhuang and other ministers presented a memorial to the emperor on the 16th day of the month: Concerning the move of the bell at the Temple of Longevity, Vice Bureau Director Guan Zhining and Bureau Secretary Hong Wenlan found out that since the Temple of Awakening is located in the north of the capital and southeast of the Yuanmingyuan (Garden of Perfection and Brightness) and the body of the bell is made of metal, it will be most appropriate to move the bell to the Temple of Awakening. If it is moved to a place southeast of the capital, it will be located in the direction of the Tanlang Muxing (literally "the star of the wood") and the metal and the wood will subdue each other. So, it will be inappropriate to move the bell there. The Temple of Awakening consists of five halls and the rear hall is connected with the element of earth: If another building is constructed behind that hall, it will signify the mutual generation of metal and earth. The new building will be most appropriate for housing the bell. If Your Majesty permits, we will, in conjunction with Su Hena, present to you a blueprint of the bell building to be built behind the rear hall. The emperor approved the memorial."

Much data and archives can prove that the Yongle Bell was suspended in the newly built big bell tower before the eighth year of the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1743) at the latest. As it is stated correctly in the Cultural Relics and Archaeology in Beijing: "It was decided to move the bell in the 11th year of the reign of Emperor Yongzheng. The entire project of building the big bell tower and suspending the big bell was completed at the beginning of the reign of Emperor Qianlong."

The Inscriptions and Features of the Yongle Bell

During the reign of Emperor Yongle, bells were cast in many places to hold services for the enhancement of Buddhism and Taoism or give the correct time for better urban management. Three bells cast during the reign of Yongle, each weighing more than 20 tons, are preserved in Beijing. Two of them were used to sound the night watches. The first one, which is made of iron and weighs more than 20 tons, is preserved at the Nine-Pavilion Bell Garden of the Big Bell Temple. The second, made of bronze and 63 tons in weight, is suspended at the bell tower on the north-south central axis passing through the entire city of Beijing. The two bells bear no inscriptions but indicate the year of casting. The Yongle Bell at the Big Bell Temple weighs about 46 tons, is 6.75 meters high, 3.3 meters in diameter and 0.22 meters thick. Astonishingly, the bell was cast entirely with Buddhist sutras and incantations in Han and Sanskrit languages. It is an unequalled Buddhist bell.

Some historical records regard the bell as the Huayan (Buddhavatamsaka-mahavaipulya) Bell. Just as the name implies, the inscriptions on the bell should be the Buddha-vatamsaka-mahavaipulya Sutra.

However, recent verifications suggest the Buddhavatarnsaka- mahavaipulya Sutra is not included in the more than 100 Han and Sanskrit sutras and incantations cast on the bell. The most prominent part of the inscriptions is the Sutra of' the Names of Buddha, Bhagazmt, Tathagata, Bodhisattva, Arya and Miracle -working Buddhists compiled by the order of Emperor Chengzu of the Ming Dynasty. Besides, there are more than 100 Sanskrit sutras and incantations, totaling more than 230,000 characters.

The Buddhist sutras contain a story called "The Parable of a Burning House" which affords much food for thought. It tells about a man of wealth whose house catches fire. His sons are at home unaware of the fire. Catering to his sons' tastes, the wealthy man puts a sheep cart, a deer cart and an ox cart (three vehicles) laden with valuables outside the house. By doing so he tries to lure them out of the burning house. The story comes from the Metaphorical Stories of the Saddharmapundarika Sutra. It was designed to explain that human beings bear their lot of birth, old age, sickness, death, worry and misery, but that they are simply unaware of this. Only Buddha (three vehicles) can rescue all beings from the sea of fire (sea of misery). "The Parable of a Burning House" vividly expounds on this theme. The "burning house" and the "three vehicles" have become symbols of the Stories of the Saddharmapundarika Sutra.

The characteristics and usage of the Yongle Bell were apparent. In his Imperial Introduction of Heavenly Reward and Retribution to the Melodies of Buddhism and the Sutra of Names written on the third day of the 11th month of the 18th year of the reign of Yongle (1420), Emperor Chengzu of the Ming Dynasty noted that if the names of Tathagata and others were persistently chanted, one could be exempted from capital punishment or other disasters; if one extolled the name of Buddha, the merit would be immeasurable; if one extolled the names of 1,001 Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, the merit would be immensely immeasurable. As a feudal emperor, Chengzu believed in and advocated Buddhism, enlightened the people by education in Buddhism and established the Ethnic-Languages Sutra Depot and the Hah-Language Sutra Depot for Buddhist services. He reached great heights in upholding religion and protecting imperial power. The emperor had a big Buddhist bell cast at the Han-Language Sutra Depot where every stroke resounded near and far. The birth of the Yongle Bell as the greatest Buddhist bell was perfectly logical.

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