The Chimes of Zeng Hou Yi

Hubei Provincial Museum

Hubei Provincial Museum
Wuhan, China

Chimes bells were first made in the West Zhou and they remained to be a kind of important musical instruments through Spring and Autumn to the Qin and the Han Dynasty. These percussions were usually hung on a frame and were arranged by their sizes, which suggest their tunes.
65 chime bells were discovered from the Zeng Hou Yi mausoleum, including 19 Niu bells, 45 Yong bells and a Bo bell which was gifted by Xiong Zhang, the king of Chu. These bells were divided into three storeys and eight groups, all hung on a wooden frame. The frame is supported by six bronze warriors and is decorated with embossment and lacquer paintings. This set of chime bells is covered in patterns of birds, beasts, dragons, human and flower petals.

The chime bells are made of alloy of tin, lead and bronze. Their shape, the so-called “closed-tile shape”, resembles two pieces of tiles with closed edges at both sides. This shape helps to reduce vibration, thus control the length of each sound, preventing sounds from mingling. The thickness of the bells has been through careful calculation, different part of the bell makes different sound. Each bell can make two tones, between which there is a gap of three scales. On there are in total 3755 characters of inscriptions with inlaid gold on the whole set of chimes about the musical sound made by the bells.

The chime bells make all the semitones in five and a half octaves. They play in today’s C major and the tonic train can be alternated. They can be played in platonic, hexatonic or diatonic scale. Chime bells are usually played by five musicians. Two musicians stand in the front, with their long wooden sticks, hitting the Yong bells which make the low pitchs. Three stand in the back, hitting the alto and high-pitch Yong bells and Niu bells with T-shaped wooden hammers.

The set was unearthed whole and well-kept, all the bells were in the original place on the frame and were all usable. It is the heaviest percussion instrument that ever unearthed.


  • Title: The Chimes of Zeng Hou Yi
  • Location: Unearthed from Leigudun Tomb (No.1 ), Suizhou, Hubei
  • Provenance: Hubei Provincial Museum
  • Medium: Bronze, Lacquer
  • Excavation Date: 1978
  • Dynasty: Around 433 B.C. (the East Zhou Dynasty and the early Warring States Period)
  • Dimensions: total weight: 2567kg; The long frames: 748 cm long and 265 cm high; The short frames: 335 cm long and 273 cm high.

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