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Ancient bronze bells now toll for a museum

MUSICAL bronze bells held an important place during the Chinese Bronze Age, which spanned from the Xia to Zhou dynasties (circa 2100 BC-221 BC).

Suspended on a sturdy wooden rack in the order of musical notes, these melodic bells were played for rituals and social functions. The number of bronze bells also indicates the ranking and power of the owner, who would later take them into his tomb for continued enjoyment in the afterlife.

The Shanghai Museum has several sets of musical bronze bells from different eras. The most impressive is a 16-piece ensemble from the Western Zhou Dynasty, circa 11th century BC, which was found in the tomb of Marquess Su in a village in northern Shanxi Province. The area around the village used to be the capital of a small vassal state, Jin. Today, Shanxi is also called "Jin" for short.

According to "Records of the Grand Historian" by Sima Qian (145-90 BC), Marquess Su did an outstanding service to King Li Wang of the Western Zhou Dynasty by winning a strategic battle in 846 BC. That event and the king's commendation were carefully inscribed in 355 words on the side of these bronze bells.

The bells were dug up by a gang of tomb robbers who, working in darkness and haste, failed to get the whole lot out, missing two buried in the soil, before smuggling 14 pieces to Hong Kong. Weeks later, in December 1992, Ma Chengyuan, then Shanghai Museum curator, received information about the bells and purchased them with the help of a Chinese-American friend.

The remaining two bells were recovered in 1993 by police pursuing the tomb robbery, but they are in the possession of Shanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology.


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