The Bell of King Seongdeok the Great

Gyeongju National Museum

This is the most exquisite piece among all extant bells in Korea. The formative aesthetics of the bell and its heartrending sound makes this artifact a world-class masterpiece. In particular, the two sculpted apsaras (Buddhist heavenly maiden) holding up an incense burner appear to be fervently praying for King Seongdeok’s eternal afterlife in paradise. This bell is considered to be one of the best religious monuments and artistic masterpieces from its era, in recognition of its formative beauty, perfect casting technique, and spiritual value. 

Buddhist Bells
This is a bell used in a Buddhist temple to inform people of the time; summon people together; and perform rituals. The sound of this bell was often used to represent Buddha’s teachings, and it was believed to have the power to save suffering souls from hell. 
Emile Bell – Legend and Truth 
The Sacred Bell of King Seongdeok the Great is more commonly known as the Emile Bell. Emile is an ancient Silla word that means “mommy.” According to legend, the state attempted to cast a national bell many times but without success. Eventually, there came an old man who said that since someone had once made a blasphemous joke about giving a child to Buddha as an offering, the bell could not make a sound. However, he said, the bell could be completed if a child were cast in the metal. Monks who had received offerings to pay for the bell said they had heard the joke from a certain woman. The king then found the woman and took her child to have the child cast into the metal. The bell was completed eventually, but when struck it rang “emile, emile,” as if it were a resentful child. At the same time, there is another legend which says that as the sister of the bell-making artisan had once committed a terrible act of dishonesty, the bell could not be successfully made, and at last the sister had to offer her child as a sacrifice for the bell to be completed. An analysis of this bell conducted in 1999 revealed its composition, which was 80-85% copper and 12-15% tin mixed with lead and zinc. It is interesting to note that no phosphorus was found—if it had been present, this would have indicated that human flesh had indeed been used in the making of the bell. This finding suggests that the story about its casting is not true. Perhaps the legend was made since making such a great bell was a tremendously difficult task. 
Inscription on the Bell of King Seongdeok the Great
This bell has inscriptions in two different places on its surface. On one side, which faces east today, contain inscriptions of Chinese prose; the other side, currently the west side, contains a Chinese poem spanning over fifty lines of four characters each. The title of the inscription reads “Divine Bell of the King Seongdeok the Great,” which reveals the name of this bell. The inscription informs that King Gyeongdeok (r. 742-765) cast a massive bell using 72,000 kg of copper to wish solace upon his father, King Seongdeok (r. 702-737). It also adds that, as King Gyeongdeok never lived to see the bell completed, his son King Hyegong (r. 765-780) succeeded his father’s will and finally completed the bell on the December 14, 771 (the year of Sinhae), the seventh year of his reign (6th year of the Dali era, King Daizong’s reign, Tang dynasty China). In addition, the ranks and names of the people who participated in the production of the bell are also included in the inscription. The inscribed poem sings praise to Unified Silla, which united the former three kingdoms, and pays tribute to the late King Gyeongdeok and his queen consort, Gyeongsu, written by the military officer Kim Pil-o, also known under the name Kim Pil-jung.  

This bell has inscriptions in two different places on its surface. On one side, which faces east today, contain inscriptions of Chinese prose; the other side, currently the west side, contains a Chinese poem spanning over fifty lines of four characters each. The title of the inscription reads “Divine Bell of the King Seongdeok the Great,” which reveals the name of this bell. The inscription informs that King Gyeongdeok (r. 742-765) cast a massive bell using 72,000 kg of copper to wish solace upon his father, King Seongdeok (r. 702-737). It also adds that, as King Gyeongdeok never lived to see the bell completed, his son King Hyegong (r. 765-780) succeeded his father’s will and finally completed the bell on the December 14, 771 (the year of Sinhae), the seventh year of his reign (6th year of the Dali era, King Daizong’s reign, Tang dynasty China). In addition, the ranks and names of the people who participated in the production of the bell are also included in the inscription.

This bell has inscriptions in two different places on its surface. On one side, which faces east today, contain inscriptions of Chinese prose; the other side, currently the west side, contains a Chinese poem spanning over fifty lines of four characters each. The inscribed poem sings praise to Unified Silla, which united the former three kingdoms, and pays tribute to the late King Gyeongdeok and his queen consort, Gyeongsu, written by the military officer Kim Pil-o, also known under the name Kim Pil-jung.

Sound Pipe and Bell Loop  
The sound Pipe is a large flute-shaped hollow tube. This pipe allows the sound from the interior of the bell to ring outward, which is a unique feature that can be found only in Silla bells. The sound pipe serves to absorb high frequency sounds, reducing conflicting noise. The bell loop is used to hang the bell and is also referred to as a “dragon-shaped bell loop,” as a dragon’s head is sculpted on its surface. The dragon sculpture is powerful yet harmonious in its aesthetic while retaining a sense of balance and its engraving displays elaborate and sophisticated details. 
Lotus Boss
These are decorations that protrude from the surface of the bell in the shape of lotus flower buds, and are also referred to as “lotus buds.” 
Percussion Center
This is the striking point of the bell. Designated at the time of casting the bell, this spot is decorated with a floral medallion design made by overlapping two layers of eight-leaf lotus flowers. These points are placed at the front and back of the bell based on the direction of the dragon loop unique to Silla bells.
Apsaras (Buddhist Heavenly Maiden) 
This image of apsaras on the bell of the King Seongdeok the Great symbolizes the beauty of Silla. The two apsaras are kneeling on the lotus flower and holding up incense burners; and medallion flowers are blooming like clouds around the coat tails of their divine garments that are fluttering towards the sky. The elaborate and elegant craftsmanship of the sculpture catches the viewers’ eyes. 
Ilseungwoneu, Perfect Sound 
This bell was commissioned by King Gyeongdeok to honor and wish solace upon his father, King Seongdeok. King Gyeongdeok, however, never lived to see the casting of the bell, which was finally completed in 771 by his son, King Hyegong. The surface of the bell contains the inscriptions, “Hang this bell as a reminder for the people to understand ilseungwoneum (perfect sound).” Ilseungwoneum here refers to the sound of enlightenment, like Buddha’s voice toward the people of this world.
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