MAAS Magazine

Ming dynasty temple bell

Ming dynasty temple bell with inscriptions all over
Buddhist temple bell: Bronze, Zhengtong era, Ming dynasty, probably Beijing, China, 1438.

Curator Min-Jung Kim discusses the bronze bell as an important spiritual object. This is an extract from the publication Icons, which can be purchased online

‘There are bells at every temple. Without bells, there would be no temples.’ Chinese proverb

China was one of the first countries in the world to cast bronze bells, the earliest of which date to 6th century BCE.1 Early Chinese bronze bells were used as musical instruments in religious ceremonies and as symbols of a dignitary’s rank and power, as they were both rare and valuable. Since the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), bells have largely been used for Buddhist ceremonies.2 The lingering, solemn and melodious sound of a temple bell is believed to reach into the spiritual world, so they are regarded as sacred. Bells are suspended within covered towers, and rung using a striking log attached horizontally to the temple’s structure using ropes. The peals of a big bell can apparently be heard up to 5 km away. Temple bells are also used to announce the time of events during the course of a day and, according to tradition, can gladden the heart of immortals, stop ghosts from evil-doing and break open the gates of hell to bring relief to the suffering and distressed.

The temple bell in the Museum’s collection dates from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644 CE). The bell is elegantly proportioned with slightly squared shoulders and a scalloped underside. It is made of cast bronze and measures 155 cm high. It features a stapled hanger on a domed top. The body comprises decorative panels intersected by lines of raised relief. An inscription in Chinese characters on the exterior of the bell reads, ‘Cast on an auspicious day of the second month in the third year of Emperor Zhengtong’s reign of the Ming dynasty’ (1438 CE).

Sadly, this bell no longer rings and though it remains a sacred, spiritual object, the connection with its spiritual home has been lost. It is believed the bell was brought from China to Sydney by a NSW naval contingent, during the Yihequan Movement (Boxer Rebellion) in 1901, and donated to the Australian Museum.3 It was transferred from the Australian Museum to the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in 1942. This was one of many such objects relating to the applied arts and sciences, which were transferred from the Australian Museum over several decades.

According to documents in the Museum’s archives, the bell ‘was found by a Party of the NSW China Contingent of 1900 half buried in the ground of the ruined Buddish [sic] Temple in the Tartar City of Pekin’ [sic].4 Tartar City is the conventional name for the walled northern inner city of Beijing, previously referred to as Peking.5 Despite considerable investigation into the origins of the bell and links with known temples, no Buddhist temple in the northern inner city matches the date inscribed on the bell (1438 CE). It’s possible the bell is from a temple in the outer city of Beijing but no evidence has been discovered to suggest this.

Four other inscriptions of the Buddhist sutra also appear on the bell. These explain that the most essential emotion of Buddhist people should be patriotism. It reads as follows:

The territory of the Emperor
will remain stable forever
(Huang Tu Yong Gu)
The ideals of the ruler (Emperor)
will be lasting and flourishing
(Di Dao Xia Chang)
The wheel of transmigration
turns unceasingly
(Fa Lun Chang Zhuan)
The shine of Buddha will be
increasingly brilliant
(Fo Ri Zeng Hui).

For the greatest spiritual effect, a bell must also be designed and cast properly. The legend of ‘The King of Bells’ illustrates the enormous difficulties involved with casting a spiritual object, even for the master craftsman entrusted with this task by order of Emperor Yongle (reigned 1403–24 CE). According to the legend, the craftsman working on this bell repeatedly failed to fuse the metals to properly cast the bell. One day, his daughter dreamt the only way to achieve perfection was to throw herself into the molten metal, which she did and, as a result, the great bell was immediately cast.6 Similar stories are attached to other bells in China and Korea. These stories allude to the tremendous effort required to make sophisticated spiritual objects.

The casting of large bronze bells also draws on highly developed scientific and innovative technology. The Exploitation of the Works of Nature (Tiangong kaiwu or 天工開物), an historical encyclopaedia of Chinese technology, considered one of the most important works of science and technology in the history of China, illustrates the techniques of casting bronze bells and the development of advanced metallurgy practices in China.7 The Ming dynasty temple bell was probably made using the lost wax process. This involved digging a large pit in the ground upon which a foundation was laid. A smooth core was then made of lime and mortar. Once dry, this was covered with a mixture of ox fat and beeswax, and modelled into the desired bell shape, before being engraved or moulded in relief with designs and text. Afterwards, a layer of thick mud paste (a mixture of clay and charcoal powder) was placed on the wax model of the bell. Next, heat was applied to harden the mould, which also caused the wax and fat to melt and drain out. The bell was then cast by pouring molten metal into the space vacated by the wax and fat, between the core and mould.8

According to the Chinese philosophy of Wuxing (wu-hsing, ‘five processes’ or ‘five phases’), in order to maximise its spiritual effect a bell must also be properly located. According to this theory, directions and elements have fixed associations. For example, the north relates to the element of water, south to fire, east to wood and west to metal. Wuxing refers to the five dynamic qualities or energies that can be perceived in all natural phenomena. The system is used for describing interactions and interpreting relationships between phenomena. It was employed as a device in many fields of early Chinese thought, including geomancy or feng shui, astrology, traditional Chinese medicine, music, art, military strategy and martial arts. People in China have long built temples and placed objects in balance with nature, according to this belief system.9

The temple bell from the Museum’s collection was temporarily relocated to the Powerhouse Museum for display in the Icons exhibition, but it is usually held in deep storage at the Museums Discovery Centre in western Sydney, far away from its original temple home in China. The journey of this bell from its spiritual home in China is now both part of its story and mystery.

There is no daily ritual that involves ringing this bell, it no longer expels evil spirits or relieves suffering in hell, but it remains a powerful, spiritual object with the presence and aura of a religious icon. It is this presence that empowers it to fulfil its new role as an ambassador of Chinese culture and a surviving example of the sophisticated art of Chinese bronze work.



1 Barry Till, Relic from a Distant Temple, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, British Columbia, 1992, p 13.

2 Percival Price, Bells and Man, Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom, 1983, p 9.

3 Bob Nicholls, Bluejackets and Boxers: Australia’s naval expedition to the Boxer uprising, Allen & Unwin, 1986. Nicholls mentions that the naval contingent had two official ‘trophies’ and one of them is a bronze bell. It is possible this is the same bell, though this is yet to be verified. Ongoing provenance research is being conducted.

4 Captain Commanding NSW Naval Forces, letter to the Australian Museum, 5 February 1902, MAAS object file H7752.

5 The walls no longer stand.

6 Price, p 15.

7 Yingxing, The Exploitation of the Works of Nature (Tiangong kaiwu or 天工開物), 1637 CE, scan of original Chinese language woodblock prints, National Library of China, World Digital Library, Accessed 14 June 2016.

8 Till, p 15.

9 ‘Wuxing (Wu-hsing)’, Ronnie Littlejohn, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Accessed 22 June 2016.


Cover of Icons book publication.
Icons, published 2016.


Purchase Icons online or from MAAS Store and selected bookstores.