2,400-year-old chime bells gains new vigour from digital technology

A woman playing chime bells at the cultural square of Wujiatai village, Wanzhai township, Xuan'en county, central China's Hubei province. Pic: People's Daily Online/Song Wen.

A woman playing chime bells at the cultural square of Wujiatai village, Wanzhai township, Xuan'en county, central China's Hubei province. Pic: People's Daily Online/Song Wen.

Published Dec 2, 2022


Zenghouyi chime bells, an ancient Chinese musical instrument with a history of more than 2,400 years, has gained new vigour and enjoys great popularity in the modern world, thanks to the country's burgeoning digital technologies and cultural and creative industry.

Excavated in 1978 from the tomb of Zenghouyi, or Marquis Yi, a ruler of the Zeng State during the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 B.C.), in Suizhou city, central China's Hubei province, the ancient Chinese musical instrument represents the pinnacle of bronze musical instruments-making in the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.) of China.

It is by far the largest, heaviest, best-preserved, and finest set of chime bells ever unearthed in China and has the most complete temperament and range among all chime bells unearthed in the country.

More importantly, the racks and bells of the instrument bear inscriptions consisting of a total of 3,755 Chinese characters, which contain rich and complete knowledge of music.

The chime bells is now the most precious treasure of the Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan City, the capital of Hubei province.

Today, in addition to watching and learning about the ancient percussion instrument at the museum, people can also buy cultural and creative products featuring the chime bells, "play" it with the help of digital technologies including holographic projection, and enjoy chime bell performances given by the Hubei Provincial Museum Chime Bell Orchestra.

"Zenghouyi chime bells is a symbol of China's rites and music culture and has been the most valuable piece of intellectual property, which has facilitated our efforts to build cultural and creative brands," said Wang Liang, director of the museum’s marketing department and deputy head of the orchestra.

According to Wang, the museum began to develop chime bell-themed creative and cultural products in the 1990s. At first, it made full-size replicas and miniature versions of the chime bells, which were very popular in both the domestic and overseas markets. Then, the museum rolled out stationery and daily necessities featuring the ancient musical instrument, which have also been well received.

The application of digital technologies has "brought the chime bells to life". In the experience zone of the museum's comprehensive exhibition hall, the chime bells is projected holographically so that visitors can "play" it with their hands. With the help of a virtual reality (VR) headset and hand shank, visitors can "perform" on chime bells according to the prompts of the digital system, immersing themselves in the charm of the cultural relic.

On the eve of the 2022 Chinese Lunar New Year, the Hubei Provincial Museum, China Media Group, as well as other organizations, jointly launched a new media-based interactive project that allows people to "strike" the Zenghouyi chime bells remotely using their mobile phones.

In 1978, when the chime bells was unearthed, a concert was held in Suizhou to test its musical function. The original Zenghouyi chime bells was used to play a famous music composition, and the performance impressed the world. Since then, the original cultural relic has been put under protection. Only its replicas have been used for performances.

In 1987, a complete replica of the chime bells unearthed was made and the Hubei Provincial Museum set up a team to perform on it, which later became the Hubei Provincial Museum Chime Bell Orchestra. Over the past more than 30 years, the orchestra has received more than 10 million visitors from home and abroad.

Music is a very good way to connect with the audience, said Wang Xianfu, deputy curator of the museum and head of the orchestra. As musicians perform on replicas of the Zenghouyi chime bells, the ancient musical instrument is "revived", he noted.

Xiang Zhang, curator of Suizhou Museum, disclosed that cultural heritage institutions and museums in Suizhou have worked with related institutions and bell-making craftspeople to reproduce bronze chime bells and pass on the traditional craft for making them, which was listed as a representative item of China's national intangible cultural heritage in 2021.

In an effort to better introduce chime bells to more people, the Hubei Provincial Museum Chime Bell Orchestra has made active efforts to integrate chime bells with different types of other musical instruments, such as the saxophone, piano, and the guqin, a plucked seven-stringed Chinese musical instrument.

In June this year, the Hubei Provincial Museum and the Wuhan Qintai Piano Museum jointly held a concert, during which chime bells and pianos were played together.

In September 2022, the Hubei Provincial Museum held an online concert in cooperation with the Chongqing China Three Gorges Museum in southwest China's Chongqing Municipality, wowing netizens with an innovative combination of chime bells and guqin.