Friday, January 16, 2009

Bells And Drums

We recently had the chance to climb to the top of Beijing's drum and bell towers. Great views of the city in all directions, from the CTTV tower to Jingshan Gongyuan to Xizhimen to the Olympic "torch" building.

But what was the original purpose of these structures? And why do so many ancient Chinese cities have them? Turns out they were the central time-keeping locations during a number of dynasties.

Apparently, at 7 and 9 pm, first the drum was beaten and then the bell was struck. At 11 pm, 1 am, and 3 am, only the bell was struck. (Even at that, I'm thinking it was tough to get a good night's sleep. Did I mention that when the bell was rung, it was struck 108 times. Why 108 times? That's another ancient story...) Also, at 7 pm, as the bell was struck, the city gates were closed and traffic was stopped for the night.

As for how the time itself was kept, it involved things like water running through a small opening and metal balls rolling through tubes.

And then there was the time, in 1900, when the Allied Forces came through and destroyed almost all of the drums. Everywhere we go in Beijing, it seems, we are walking in the footsteps of those marauding foreign forces. Never would I have guessed the impact that those times of great weakness still exercise on the Chinese psyche, even right down to something as simple as how time was kept and announced...



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