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An exceptionally rare pair of imperial gilt-bronze 'dragon' ritual bells, bianzhong. Kangxi cast marks, corresponding to 1715, and of the period

The bells are finely cast, each suspended from a pair of dragons forming the handle, the two scaly bodies intertwined, each of the beasts powerfully modelled with its mouth open to reveal its tongue between sharp fangs, with two long studded horns extending back over its head along a finely incised mane, the large claws clutching the barrel-shaped body of the bell, the body exquisitely cast in high relief around the mid-section, with two further dragons striding amidst cloud scrolls and waves clutching a 'flaming pearl', divided on either side by rectangular panels, inscribed on one side with the characters Kangxi wushisi nian zhi, 'Made in the 54th year of Kangxi reign', and on the other side with the respective musical notes, jiazhong, denoting the 4th musical note and wuyi, the 11th musical note. 12 1/4 in. (31 cm.) and 11 3/4 in. (29.8 cm.) high, wood stands, Japanese wood boxes (2). Est. $1,296,160 - $1,944,240. Price Realized $5,892,343

清康熙 御製鎏金銅交龍鈕雲龍紋「無射」、「夾鐘」編鐘各一枚 鑄《康熙五十四年製》楷書銘款

鐘圓體,中空,腰部稍大,小口齊平。頂飾交龍鈕,龍背供起成孔,用於穿繫。鐘體滿鏨紋飾,兩道弦紋把鐘體分開三層。上層滿飾如意朵雲紋;中層主體飾雙龍戲珠紋輔雲紋,正中長方形框內一鑄陽文楷書律名「無射」、另一鑄「夾鐘」; 背面鑄《康熙五十四年製》楷書銘款;下部鑄八個音乳,以供敲擊之用,音乳以 對稱雲角紋相間。

編鐘是中國一種古老的禮器、樂器。一組編鐘共16枚,大小相等,鐘壁依次由厚至薄,奇數為律,偶數為呂。由低至高依次為黃鐘、大呂、太簇、夾鐘、姑洗、仲呂、蕤賓、林鐘、夷則、南呂、無射、應鐘。

禮樂演奏「以黃鐘為宮」,「 鐘擊以起樂,編鐘從之」 。作為國家大典禮樂之器,其鑄造工藝必經精雕細 琢,以示宮廷樂器及禮器的非凡氣派。傳世的康熙朝編鐘多飾八卦紋,如此拍品飾以雲龍紋的甚為珍罕。

此兩枚編鐘為日本優彩庵之舊藏,二十世紀初購為館藏。 

Provenance: A prominent Japanese collection acquired in the early 20th century
The Yousaian Collection, Japan

Notes: Bells of this type were known as bianzhong and were usually assembled in graduated sets of sixteen, providing twelve musical tones with the four repeated notes in lower or higher octaves. The twelve Chinese musical tones are arranged in the following sequence: Huangzhong (1st), Dalu (2nd), Taicu (3rd), Jiazhong (4th), Guxi (5th), Zhonglu (6th and as cast on the present bell), Ruibin (7th), Lingzhong (8th), Yize (9th), Nanlu (10th), Wuyi (11th), and Yingzhong (12th). The bells were suspended in two tiers of eight attached to tall wooden frames, as depicted in a Court painting by Guiseppe Castiglione entitled, 'Imperial Banquet in Wanshu Garden', illustrated by Chuimei Ho and B. Bronson, Splendors of China's Forbidden City, The Field Museum, Chicago, p. 52, pl. 42. The bells were arranged in accordance to their thickness (the size of the bells do not vary, only the thickness) and their respective musical note was determined; a set is illustrated in Life in the Forbidden City of Qing Dynasty, The Forbidden City Publishing House, 2007, p. 50, no. 50. When struck, the present bells sound the musical notes of B and C.

Bianzhong were essential in conducting Confucian ritual ceremonies at the Imperial altars, formal banquets and during processions. It has been noted that in 1741, the Qianlong Emperor set up a Music Division for court music and specified melodies of his choice for the various court functions that prevailed until the early 20th century, op. cit., The Field Museum, p.52.

The present bells are particularly unusual both for being from the same set but also for the rare dragon motif around the exterior. The only other published 'dragon' bells dated to the Kangxi period appear to be two sets of sixteen in the Palace Museum, Beijing. The first set, dated to the 52nd year of the Kangxi reign (1713), similar in form to the present pair, was included in the 2004 Chateau de Versailles exhibition, Kangxi - Empereur de Chine, 1662-1722, and illustrated in the catalogue, p. 17, no. 2. Another set, slightly more angular and also dated to the 52nd year of Kangxi, was included in the 2006 Royal Academy of Arts exhibition, China - The Three Emperors, 1662-1795 and is illustrated in the catalogue, p. 123, no. 32.

Other extant Kangxi examples are generally designed with trigrams rather than with dragons. The present bells appear to be the only examples in a private collection. A bell of very closely related 'dragon' design dated to the 8th year of the Qianlong reign, 1743 was sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 27 May 2008, lot 1540. The Qianlong bell is more rounded and is somewhat less condensed in design than on the present examples, but the depiction of the dragons and decorative bands compare very closely. Two further comparable dragon-decorated bells, dated to 1744, are in the Palace of Fountainebleau, illustrated in Le Musee chinois de I'imperatrice Eugenie, 1994, p. 47 fig. 34. From the illustration, these bells appear to be incised with the characters, Nanlu, the 10th musical note, and Yingzhong, the 12th note. The Fountainebleau bells are cast with angular shoulders and their musical notes are incised, rather than cast, as on the present bell. It is interesting to note that a drawing of a similar bell designed with a dragon appeared in the Illustrated London News of 13 April 1861, under the title 'French Spoils for China Recently Exhibited at the Palace of the Tuileries'.

A further complete carillon of 16 bells decorated with trigrams and dated to the 52nd year of Kangxi (1713), also in the Palace Museum, Beijing was included in the 1996-1997 Musee du Petit Palais exhibition, La Cite Interdite - Vie publique et privee des empereurs de Chine, 1644-1911, and illustrated in the catalogue, p. 171 no. 49. Two groups of five bells decorated with trigrams and dated to the Kangxi period from the C. Ruxton and Audrey B. Love collection, were sold at Christie's New York, 20 October 2004, lots 455 and 456. The first, with an inscription dated to the 52nd of Kangxi (1713); bearing the 7th, 8th, 10th, 11th and 12th tone respectively. The second group dates to the same year as the present bells, the 54th year of Kangxi (1715); bearing the 5th, 6th, 10th, 11th and 12th tone respectively. A ruyi (11th) tone bell from the 52nd year of the Kangxi period from the Lord and Lady Hesketh Collection was sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 9 October 2007, lot 1327; another ruyi bell dated to the 54th year of Kangxi was sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 26 April 1999, lot 520.

A carillon of bells bearing the marks Qianlong wushiwu nianzhi, made in 55th year of Qianlong reign (1790), is in the Beijing Palace Museum collection. Two of these, denoting the musical note Taicu (3rd tone) and Jiazhong (4th tone) are illustrated in Treasures of Imperial Court, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Hong Kong, 2004, pp. 6-7, no. 5. The Palace Museum examples are made of solid gold, similar to an earlier set that was cast in the Kangxi reign. The Qianlong set was given to the Emperor by officials in celebration of the Emperor's eightieth birthday; and it has been noted that the last Qing emperor, Puyi, used these bells as lien against a loan from Beijing's Yanyue Bank but they were returned to the Palace in 1949, ibid, p. 6.

Christie's. The Imperial Saleimportant Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art . 27 May 2009. Convention Hall. Hong Kong. www.christies.com