Wednesday, 29 February 2012

The Great Bell of Beijing

The Mongol Empire at its greatest extent
Map created by the author

When the year 1368 came, for over one and a half centuries many of the nations of the world had been living in a state of constant fear for their very existence. With good reason. From humble origins as nomadic tribesmen on the Asian steppe, the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan and his successors had exploded across the known world. Every nation that had stood up to them lay in flames and countless armies that had been sent to desperately try and stop them had been utterly destroyed. When the hordes of Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, fell upon China, the Song Dynasty and thousands of years of Chinese independence were hurled aside like a rag doll. The Mongol Khagan now ruled over the largest land empire the world has ever known, stretching from the East China Sea to the Mediterranean. It was indeed through the Mongol trade routes that the Black Death, the deadliest pandemic in history which left one in three Europeans dead, would extend the hand of Death with breath taking speed. Mongols had fought both Koreans and Hungarians, yet Koreans had never even heard of Hungarians, and were oblivious that they were fighting the same foe, so vast was the Mongol domain...

The Ming Empire
Map created by the author
In 1241, having routed the armies of Christian Europe, the Mongols were bearing down upon the gates of Vienna when news suddenly reached them of the death of the Khagan, Ogedei Khan. As was Mongol custom, all princes were required to return to the Mongol heartland to elect a successor, and the hordes at once returned to Asia. Only by a stroke of extreme good luck, therefore, was Europe saved from almost certain destruction. Over time, as the descendants of Genghis Khan grew mistrustful of each other, and drunk on their dazzling spoils of conquest, the Great Mongol Empire split into four. Each quarter was still vastly greater in size than many countries put together, but herein marked their decline. The Yuan Dynasty, or Mongol rule of China, was weakened, and after an enormous uprising, the Chinese at last threw off the Mongol yoke in 1368. The Chinese Emperor was restored to the Dragon Throne in the newly born Ming Dynasty, which would see China rise to new heights of learning and the arts. In 1403, the Yongle Emperor, third of the Ming Dynasty, decided to reassert Chinese traditions, and made a momentous decision. Leaving the Imperial Capital of Nanjing, he decided instead to make a new capital city on the ruins of Dadu, the old stronghold of Mongol rule. To this city he gave the name Beijing. Here is the story of something that happened in the new city.

The Forbidden City
Built between 1406 - 1420
The Chinese were free, but at a heavy price. Much of China was in a state of devastation, poverty and vulnerability. The Yongle Emperor, however, was a shrewd and ambitious ruler. His many edicts traversed the land in a whirlwind of speed, and soon the future looked bright for China. The farms were working once more, the army well equipped, the people fed and the treasury full. The Emperor attracted all the most learned minds in China, and soon the court, and city, of Beijing began to radiate the glory that the Mongols had all but destroyed. The most skilled poets set about writing great works of literature, the most skilled generals set forth to liberate more lands from foreign rule, and the most skilled artisans set to work on building a grand new city to house the Dragon Throne - The Forbidden City. As was tradition in Chinese cities, two towers were raised; one to house a Great Drum, to watch over the surrounding lands, and the other to house a Great Bell, to raise the alarm should any enemy march on the city. Great care and attention was lavished upon these two structures. The Mongols may have been beaten, but they still loomed as a terrifying threat on the northern borders of the Great Wall, and the newly liberated Chinese had no wish to endure the humiliation of occupation again. The Drum Tower was soon finished, and the Drum within was sounded. The booming thuds thundered across the city, loud enough such that even roosting birds on the other side of the city might be roused to flight from the trees.

As the Bell Tower was nearing completion, the Emperor decided that it should be crowned with a truly magnificent bell, worthy of the glorious home that had been made for it. Hearing of a gifted smith called Kuan Yu, the Yongle Emperor granted him a generous gift of money, and ordered the man to craft a bell which, when struck, could be heard in all parts of the city at the slightest alarm. Honoured at being chosen, Kuan Yu returned to his home, and set work on the Great Bell of Beijing. The Emperor's money paid for a vast retinue of the most skilled metal smiths to help, and the finest metals. It was some months before the mould was at last ready, and Kuan Yu announced to the Emperor that the casting could begin. In splendid array, the Emperor and his court came to the forge to witness the casting. As the exuberant parades died down, ready for the event, the bellmaker's excitement grew, eager as he was to honour his Emperor. At the signal, the channel opened, and the molten metal rushed forth into the mould. The anticipation grew as the metal cooled, and Kuan Yu stepped forward to break away the mould. Kuan Yu was craftsman, who took immense pride in the quality of his work, and when he pulled aside the mould to find the bell honeycombed with pits in many places, he was mortified. The Bell was ruined. The Emperor despaired at the time, labour and money that had been wasted on it. But he was an understanding and forgiving man at heart, and so gave to Kuan Yu another pouch of money, ordering him to try again.

The shocked bellmaker heeded the Emperor's word, and immediately set to work on a new Bell. As he once more laid out the mould, he was wracked with self-doubt and confusion. Nothing like this had ever happened before; it was not like him to fail so completely. Resolving that the mistake was as a result of an oversight on his part, Kuan Yu doubled his efforts and concentration, determined that his error be forgotten. After months of hard work, the mould was ready, and the glowing furnaces burned in readiness. Once more, the Yongle Emperor and his flamboyant court took up position to watch. At the signal, the channel opened at the radiant metal poured in. Kuan Yu, wiping the sweat from his nervous brow, approached the mould. Gently prising it away, he felt terror flood his body. For once again, the Bell was ruined. The Emperor despaired, as the gathered crowds got up to leave in disappointment. But this time, the Emperor spoke to Kuan Yu. He gave the bellmaker another pouch of money, and a warning. For to err once is understandable, twice forgivable, but three times punishable. He gave Kuan Yu one last chance, and if, on the third time it was a failure, he would pay with his life.

The Yongle Emperor
Ink parchment by anonymous artist,
Early Ming Dynasty
Kuan Yu returned home a broken man. What offense had his ancestors committed, such as to earn him such misfortune? Twice he had failed his Emperor, and he could not see how to avoid a third time. Now, if there was one thing Kuan Yu treasured more than his professional pride and honour, it was his daughter. Sixteen years of age and astonishingly beautiful, she had "almond-shaped eyes, like the autumn waves, which, sparkling and dancing in the sun, seem to leap up in joy". She was modest too, and prodigious in talent for many fine things. She was the apple of her father's eye, and the two lived together happily, though the bellmaker's wife had tragically died long ago. Ko-ai, as she was called, returned his affection, and when she saw him, distraught, she begged to know the source of his grief. When her father told her of his failures, she comforted him, resolving to offer daily prayers for his success this time. "Are we not told that out of evil cometh good?" she asked. Soothed by her words, Kuan Yu set about the hard work of forging one last bell, newly invigorated. The months passed, and soon the day for the unveiling approached. Every night, Ko-ai had prayed, but suddenly she had the idea of visiting a respected seer, in the hope that he might know the cause of both failures. "The next bell will fail", he replied. Ko-ai was mortified, but the seer continued, "unless the blood of a young girl is poured in with the metal".

The fateful day of the third casting arrived. Much of the city, it seemed, had come to witness the scene with the Emperor. There was a nervous tension in the air, for the day would end only in honour, or death for Kuan Yu. The bellmaker could hardly restrain his fear as he walked bravely up to the mould, ready to pour the molten metal in. The signal was given, and Kuan Yu reached for the lever, but just then, a shout startled the crowd. It was Ko-ai. "For my father", she called in defiance, as she hurled herself from the walkway into the boiling metal. "KO-AI!!!" the bellmaker shouted, but it was too late. One of the workmen reached out for her as she fell, but could only save her shoe. As the girl's hands touched the fiery liquid, an unearthly scream resounded from her lips, and soon Ko-ai and metal were one. Kuan Yu's sanity shattered. Many men were needed to forcibly drag him home, as he bellowed deranged words. A workman broke open the mould and, as the seer had prophesied, the bell stood proud, unblemished, unbroken, with not a trace to suggest the horror within.

Some days later, the hour had come. By order of the Yongle Emperor, the Great Bell was raised to its new home atop the tower. All Beijing had gathered for this moment, and all had heard rumours of its making. The Emperor gave the order, and the Bell was struck with a hammer. Such a boom it was! With a ringing clash as though of thunder, the sound rolled out to the very highest mountains. It seemed the Bell was in that moment Kuan Yu's truly greatest legacy. But then, as the deafening tone began to die, a low sound followed it. A sound remarkably like the shout of a woman in terrible agony, and it sent a chill down the spine of all. As the tone quietened, the word shoe was distinctly heard in the ringing. Even today, when the Great Bell is rung, passers-by flinch and remark, "There's poor Ko-ai's voice calling for her shoe..."

United Kingdom

Myths of China:
Myths and Legends of China - The Original Classic Edition
(A vast collection of stories and myths, including that of the Great Bell of Beijing, from China, translated into English)

United States

Myths of China:
Myths and Legends of China - The Original Classic Edition
(A vast collection of stories and myths, including that of the Great Bell of Beijing, from China, translated into English)

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