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Musical Instrument Museum, Part 2

Today we return to the antiquities on display in the special exhibit, "Ancient Musical Treasures from Central China". Pictured here is a Zheng bell from the Western Zhou dynasty, 1046 to 771 BCE. The taotie mask motif features two eyes, scowling eyebrows and large ears or horns. This single round-handled Zheng is from the tomb of a king of Guo State and was mounted atop a staff and played with a beater to signal the movements of military troops. It produces two separate tones.

Next up is a bronze Ling bell from the Xia dynasty, 2070 to 1600 BCE. This small Ling or "clapper" bell is from a set of the earliest-known bronze bells in China. The external "wing" determined the pitch by modifying the mass of the bell wall. The bell had a clapper suspended inside. It may have hung outside to create pleasing sounds when stirred by the wind.

Here we see a bone paixiax panpipe dated to the Western Zhou dynasty, circa 1046 BCE. These panpipes were usually made from bamboo, thus this example is exceedingly rare. It was constructed from birds' leg bones — this one plus three others found with it are the earliest-surviving examples in China. The individual pipes were bundled together with a fine silk cord that has since deteriorated.

This is a stone quing chime with a dragon motif from the Shang dynasty, 1600 to 1046 BCE. The use of tuned stone chimes began during China's Neolithic period but became increasingly important in the Shang and Zhou dynasties. The mythological dragon engraved on its surface is one of the oldest and most important symbols of power in China.

This photo shows the display of bianqing stone chimes from the Warring States period, 476 to 221 BCE. During the Zhou dynasty, racks of stone chimes known as bianqing ("ordered stones") became an essential part of orchestras and were tuned to be played in harmony with bronze bells. Carved from marble, each chime of this nine-note set is made in an L-shaped form described in the Book of Diverse Crafts.

The top photo shows a bianqing from a tomb excavation in Henan Province. The bottom photo shows the stone chimes of the bianqing as they were suspended on an elaborate frame for performance and ceremonies.

Displayed here are bronze bianling bells with taotie motif from the Western Zhou dynasty, 1046 to 771 BCE. The surface of these clappered bells is ornamented with a mysterious "beast face" motif known as taotie. The precise meaning of this mythological symbol has been lost, but some speculate that it represents the insatiable aspect of power that must be brought into harmony with virtue.

Next on our tour is a bronze bell with knob design from the Western Jin dynasty, 266 to 316 CE. The art of casting bronze bells diminished in the Han dynasty — the bells made then were much less complex than those of the Zhou dynasty.

These bronze bells were from the Han dynasty, 206 BCE to 220 CE. Bells used in the Han dynasty were smaller and simpler — seldom found in large sets. These examples also show an aesthetic shift toward organic, flowing ornamentation, rather than heavily symbolic motifs.

Here we see delightful figurines of musicians, dancers and acrobats from the Han dynasty, 206 BCE to 220 CE. This group is performing baixi, or "hundred dramas", a sort of variety show including dramatic, comedic and even magical acts with musical accompaniment.

Next up are additional figurines of musicians, dancers and acrobats from the Western Han dynasty, 206 BCE to 25 CE. This troupe is performing the xianghe ge narrative song genre — with musicians playing paixiao and xun, a singer and two actors — while the tall figure may be the narrator. Based on old folk tales, xianghe ge flourished for centuries and laid the groundwork for opera.


Last for today are ceramic figures of musicians form the Han dynasty, 206 BCE to 220 CE. This group is centered around a musician (center, top row) playing the se silk-stringed zither, perhaps as the featured soloist. During the Han dynasty, portable wooden instruments became dominant and were no longer buried in tombs, replaced instead by ceramic models. This ensemble came from a very large model house.

To be continued...

Life is good.

B. David

P. S., All photos and text © B. David Cathell Photography, Inc. — www.bdavidcathell.com