The Bell and Cauldron Inscriptions, A Feast of Chinese Characters: the Origin and Development, Taiwan National Palace Museum

The foundation of Chinese culture was laid four thousand years ago in the remote ages of Three Dynasties (c. 2070 ~ 221 B.C.E.): Xia, Shang, and Zhou, during which Rites and Music acquired the status of the keystone of society. Their importance is illustrated by the fact that Confucius (551 ~ 479 B.C.E.) often praised the “Instituting of Rites and Making of Music” by Duke of Zhou as the two greatest paragons of cultural institutions.

The Culture of Rites and Music embodied itself in bronzes, which were considered “Treasure of the State”. Ding (cauldron) was foremost among all ritual vessels; zhong (bell) the prime musical instrument. To display sacrificial offerings and to perform ceremonial music, cauldron sets and bell ensembles were indispensable parts of any grand events of worship.

Fresh-cast bronzes shine like gold so the ancients sometimes referred to them as jing (gold). In the nomenclature of epigraphy, the words cast or engraved on bronzes are accordingly called jing wen (Golden Script), or zhong ding wen (Bell and Cauldron Script). These vessels were commissioned to commemorate unusual accomplishments or great virtues, and to offer memorial sacrifices in the family temples, so as to honor ancestors and to pass down to posterity. Today the accompanying inscriptions provide not only first-hand materials attesting to historical veracity, but also valuable sources for understanding the subsequent development of Chinese characters.

Zong Zhou Zhong (Bell of Zhou), commissioned by King Li of West Zhou, is the most important musical instrument cast under his royal decree. Mao Gong Ding (Cauldron of Duke of Mao), commissioned by a high official of consequence Duke of Mao, who was also an uncle of King Xuan, carries the longest bronze text so far extant. Surely the combined 620 plus characters of these two noble vessels do not encompass all the “Golden Scripts” of Shang and Zhou, but as the saying goes, the parts could very well disclose the nature of the whole. Sufficient context and clues are available in them for us to delve into the possible origins.

Zong Zhou Zhong
late West Zhou (reign of King Li)
h. 65.6 cm, w. 35.2 cm, 122 characters
With this in mind, the present exhibit will take us on a Feast of Chinese Characters: the Origin and Development, and with it a long-live toast of joy to the eternal Realm of Han Ideograms.

Also known as Bell of Fu or Bell of Hu, the bell was commissioned by King Li of West Zhou to perform in the ceremony of ancestral worship. The stately form and dignified look, coupled with its courtly, erudite inscription, certainly exemplifies the most significant Son of Heaven bronze that is extant today.

Thirty six decorative pegs prominently protrude from both sides of the double-tile-shaped bell. The bell handle stands imposingly tall and erect. The 122-character long inscription commences from the middle of the front, continues on the lower left then turns to the lower right of the other side. The name of the person who commissioned the piece is indicated as Fu, which phonetically approximates to, and is likely interchangeable with, Hu, the personal name of King Li, thus to whom the scholars attributed the bell.

The inscription describes how King Li had modeled on the great virtues of his royal ancestors, the two founding fathers of Zhou dynasty, King Wen and King Wu, in assiduously consolidating and solidifying his realm. When the chieftain of a southern state Pu launched an outrageous military offense against the land of Zhou, King Li didn’t hesitate and personally led his troops expelling the enemy all the way back to its wretched capital. The surrendering Pu sent emissaries to beg peace and twenty six other states also came along to seek audience. King Li, grateful of the blessings bestowed by the Almighty One and Hundred Divinities, commissioned this Bell of Zhou to celebrate the exploits, to offer it to the family temple with music, and to pray for the ancestor kings’ benediction of eternal peace and safety across the entire realm.

The bell was already a treasured item in the imperial collections during early Qing dynasty, yet without any official or other records as to the date of its first discovery or unearthing. In 1978, a bronze guei (a round vessel to hold cooked grain offering to ancestors) was excavated at Qi village of Fufeng County, Shanxi Province, with an inscription of 124 characters long. It is another one of fine ritual vessels made under the order of Hu, King Li, and a worthy piece which could serve to establish mutual vouchering reference with the bell.

Mao Gong Ding
late West Zhou (reign of King Xuan)
h. 53.8 cm, w. 47.9 cm
500 characters (10 duplicate, 13 combined, and 2 cast incomplete)
The text cast inside the bowl of the Cauldron, consisting of 500 characters and arranged in 32 lines, is the longest bronze inscription in the world.

The Cauldron, its unearthing commonly attributed to the 23rd year of Daoguang reign, Qing dynasty (1843), in Qishan County, Shanxi Province, has been through a number of collectors before it was donated to the Central Museum.
It was then escorted with many other treasures of the National Palace Museum to quite a few locations around the country, finally arriving in Taiwan.

King Li misruled the state in his later years and lost fealty from his vassal states. He was banished to a place called Zhi, thereby Zhou entering a phase of fourteen years governed by joint regency. All over the lands under Heaven, old and new factions of feudal barons were still busy fighting one another when King Xuan succeeded the throne on death of his father. The passage in the inscription “…chaos and upheavals everywhere” probably refers to the very situation which gravely worried the new king.

That the first five paragraphs of the kingly pronouncement all commence with “So declares the King” or “The King declares” vividly conveys how anxious King Xuan was in seeking a capable hand to help him rebuild the state. Likewise, in the 2nd through 4th paragraphs, a series of forceful imperative statements uttered with “you shall NOT”, “you may NOT”, and “you are NOT to” further reveal the perilous turmoil the state was in, and the King’s urgent need at this critical moment for the dedicated service of Duke of Mao.

So the Duke of Mao was appointed by King Xuan to take charge of all governing matters in the nation, including proclamations of statutes and codes, education of nobility youths, training guards, and administering domestic affairs. Decidedly the Duke was installed in a position above all people in the nation but one. In accordance with this great responsibility he was also greatly bestowed upon with: ritual jade, personal ornaments, court wear, adornment for his carriage, trappings for his horses, and so on. The fact that this list of awards and rewards tops all others that were mentioned in any bronze texts clearly indicates the magnitude of the appointment.

The greatness of Duke Mao’s Cauldron inscription does not lie in its mere length or its sublime text only. The impressive endowment also surpasses all. A truly paramount treasure in all lands under Heaven, indeed it is.

Taiwan National Palace Museum
The National Palace Museum houses one of the largest collections of Chinese art in the world. With nearly 700,000 precious artifacts, the museum’s extensive collection spans thousands of years and consists of magnificent treasures from the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing imperial collections.

In recent years, the National Palace Museum has dedicated itself to melding culture and technology, hoping to make its national treasures and remarkable cultural inheritance more accessible to people around the world.