Innovation gives new lease of life to 2,400-year-old chime bells

Photo taken on Dec. 20, 2021 shows a set of chime bells, which was found in 1978 in the tomb of Marquis Yi, on display in the new exhibition hall of Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province.

A set of bronze chime bells, an ancient Chinese musical instrument with a history of more than 2,400 years, has become a highlight of the various collections of the Hubei Provincial Museum in central China’s Hubei Province.

The chime bells were found in 1978 in the tomb of Marquis Yi, a ruler of the Zeng State during the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC), in Suizhou city, Hubei. The find remains the biggest, finest and most complete set of chime bells ever discovered in China.

Innovative development has given the ancient chime bells a new lease of life. Today, people can appreciate the chime bells at the museum, buy cultural and creative products featuring chime bell elements, “play” chime bells with the help of digital technologies including holographic projection and virtual reality at the museum’s experience zone, and watch chime bell performances given by the Hubei Provincial Museum Chime Bell Orchestra.

“The famed chime bells provide the most valuable piece of intellectual property for us to build cultural and creative brands,” said Wang Liang, director of the museum’s marketing department and deputy head of the orchestra.

Wang said the museum began to develop chime bell-themed creative cultural products in the 1990s. Initially, it made replicas of the chime bells, which became highly sought after at home and abroad. Then, the museum rolled out stationery and daily necessities featuring chime bell elements, which also proved popular. Wang said that the museum launched chime bell-shaped cakes and ice cream bars and other collections in 2019, which became a hit with many young people.

Meanwhile, the traditional craft for producing bronze chime bells has been revived. As part of a musical test carried out for archeological purposes, the original Chime Bells of Marquis Yi of Zeng were played in a performance in 1978 when they were unearthed. To better protect the cultural relics, the bronze chime bells used for performances today are replicas of the originals.

Xiang Zhang, curator of the Suizhou Museum, explained that cultural heritage institutions and museums in Suizhou worked with related institutions and bell makers to reproduce bronze chime bells and passed on the traditional craft for making them, which was listed as a national intangible cultural heritage in 2021.

“Family inheritance and apprenticeships are the main ways for passing on the traditional craft, which involves complex, time-consuming steps and the use of the best raw materials in Suizhou. So far, about 400 people have taken up the traditional craft,” Xiang added.

Wang Xianfu, deputy curator of the Hubei Provincial Museum and head of the Hubei Provincial Museum Chime Bell Orchestra, said the orchestra has brought the Chime Bells of Marquis Yi of Zeng to life by incorporating replicas of the instrument in their performances.

In recent years, the orchestra has given performances showcasing ancient chime bell melodies, the culture of Chu, an ancient kingdom in China, and contemporary music. On April 8, 2021, the orchestra held a chime bell concert at the museum’s concert hall to mark the city’s efforts in fighting the COVID-19 epidemic both online and offline, garnering nearly 2 million views.

While staging performances, the orchestra has also made innovations by integrating the chime bells with other musical instruments such as saxophone, piano, and guqin, a plucked seven-stringed Chinese musical instrument.