Musical Instruments




Archaeologists have unearthed quite a few sets of instruments used in court performances in Zhou times.  Key instruments were stone chimes, bronze drums, stringed lute-like instruments, bamboo flutes, and sets of bells.  The instruments found in Marquis Yi's tomb represent the largest single group of musical instruments preserved from any culture in the ancient world.

Music played a central role in court life in ancient China.  Visitors to the courts of kings and lords could expect to be entertained by troops of dancers and accompanying musicians.  Many of the poems in the classic Book of Songs were odes or hymns meant to be performed on ritual occasions.  Music was believed by early thinkers to have great moral powers.  Confucius distinguished between music that would bring people into harmony and music that would lead to wanton thoughts.  The more quantifiable aspects of music attracted the attention of cosmological theorists who speculated on the significance of pitch measurement and its relationship to other numerical relationships.  Sound as a natural phenomenon was perceived to be paradigmatic of many natural processes.  

How do the instruments shown below compare with western instruments? 

The woodwind instrument below is a mouth organ.  The body is eight inches long.  There are eighteen bamboo pipes with a vibrating reed inside each pipe.  

The picture below shows one of two panpipes found in the tomb.  It is about nine inches long and is made of thirteen bamboo pipes.  

Bamboo mouth organ                                     

SOURCE:  Zuo Boyang, Recent Dicoveries in Chinese Archeology (Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 1984), illustration on p. 8.

Bamboo panpipe        Length: 29cm

SOURCE:  Suixian Zenghouyi mu (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1980), pl.  34.

What do you think these chimes are made of?

How can you tell this instrument was intended for visual display as well as musical enjoyment?

Chimes on rack with bronze supports       

SOURCE:  Zhonguo zhongda kaogu faxian (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1990),  p. 125.
ANSWER:  The 32 chimes are made of stone and are divided into four groups.  Most of the chime stones now suspended from the rack are reconstructions, since few of the original pieces have survived intact, but remnants of the inscriptions on each explain the pitch.  The bronze frame is the original.  

The set of 64 bells found in Marquis Yi's tomb must be considered one of the most astonishing archaeological discoveries in recent times.  The picture below shows a part of the set.  The bells were arranged in eight rows according to size and pitch, and hang in three rows on the L-shaped frame. 

Can you tell what is supporting the wooden beams?

To see archaeologists working on these bells, click here [given below in this Teacher's Guide].

The bells bear inscriptions that indicate their pitches and reveal they were gifts from the king of Chu.  The precision with which these bells were cast indicates that the art of bell-making had reached a very advanced state. 

The bells vary in weight from 6.75 to 79.5 kg.

MORE:  As early as the Shang dynasty both north and south China had produced massive clapperless bells (nao), the predecessor to the kind of bells from Marquis Yi's tomb.  Constructed with the mouth of the bell upward, the nao is arranged in groups of three for playing simple tunes.  In later times the number of bells required for a performance increased, and though they remained similar to the nao in shape, they were suspended mouth-downward from a frame. 


Bells on lacquered stand with bronze support

Length of stand 5.8 m

SOURCE:  Zhongguo meishu quanji, Diaosu bian, 1 (Beijing: Renmin meishu chubanshe, 1988),  p. 107.

Can you imagine how these bells were played?

ANSWER:  These bells have no clappers and are sounded by striking.  Because of their shape, each bell could sound two different notes, one if struck at the side, the other at the center.  The notes produced by the set range over five octaves. 
Restoration of the Bells

The bells were found in their original positions and in remarkably good condition, due to the fact that the charcoal-packed tomb had become waterlogged over time.  The shaft of the tomb had also been filled with clay, stone slabs, and earth. These durable materials provided a natural method of preservation.  

Notice the size of the set of bells in relation to the people. 




SOURCE:  Suixian Zenghouyi mu (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1980), illustration #8.

Move on to Bronzes from Marquis Yi's tomb