Deciphering city codes: the Central Axis of Beijing

Bell and Drum towers: Witnesses of time

Updated: Jun 7, 2022 Print
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The Bell Tower (back) and the Drum Tower (front) at evening [Photo/IC]

On the northern tip of the Beijing Central Axis, lie the Bell and Drum towers. They struck the hours during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Built in 1272, the ninth year of the Zhiyuan reign (1264-1294), the towers have undergone destruction and reconstruction several times, playing a significant role in the city planning of ancient Beijing.

The Bell Tower in 1898 [Photo/Official WeChat account of the Beijing Bell and Drum Towers]

The existing Bell Tower was reconstructed in 1745, the tenth year of the Qianlong reign (1736-1795) in the Qing Dynasty. The whole building is masonry-built with arches and no beams or columns for the sake of fire prevention. The building components, such as purlins, eaves, rafters, bracket-sets (dougong), and covert windows, are all shaped from stones. There is a bell shelf in the middle of the tower, on which a huge bronze bell inscribed with six Chinese characters reading “An auspicious day of the Ming Dynasty Yongle reign (1403-1424)” hangs. The bell is 7.02 meters high and weighs 63 tons, and has a base diameter of 3.4 meters. It is the China’s heaviest and biggest surviving ancient bronze bell, and its sound is long and loud and travels dozens of kilometers.

The big bronze bell hanging on the Bell Tower [Photo/Official WeChat account of the Beijing Bell and Drum Towers]


The Drum Tower in 1898 [Photo/Official WeChat account of the Beijing Bell and Drum Towers]

Today’s Drum Tower dates to 1539, the 18th year of the Jiajing reign (1522-1566) in the Ming Dynasty. The time measuring device used centuries ago included 25 drums, of which the major drum symbolized one year and 24 group drums represented 24 solar terms. Ancient people beat the drums to mark time’s passing.

A group of 25 drums are copied according to historical records and displayed on the Drum Tower. [Photo/Official WeChat account of the Beijing Bell and Drum Towers]

The Bell and Drum towers have struck time for ancient Beijing for more than 600 years. The drums were always beaten before the bell was rung. The period from 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm was the start of evening. When the bell sounded after the drum, the city gates were closed and traffic was cut down, a daily step known as “cleaning the streets”.

At present, the Bell and Drum towers are a cultural space for citizens. They are also popular tourist destinations that draw people to sense the changes time brings.

People enjoy themselves on frozen Shichahai Lake, where they can see the Bell and Drum towers at a near distance. [Photo/VCG]


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