The Great Bell

: A Chinese Wonder Book

The mighty Yung-lo sat on the great throne surrounded by a hundred

attendants. He was sad, for he could think of no wonderful thing to do

for his country. He flirted his silken fan nervously and snapped his

long finger-nails in the impatience of despair.

"Woe is me!" he cried at last, his sorrow getting the better of his

usual calmness. "I have picked up the great capital and moved it from

the South to Pe
ing and have built here a mighty city. I have surrounded

my city with a wall, even thicker and greater than the famous wall of

China. I have constructed in this city scores of temples and palaces.

I have had the wise men and scholars compile a great book of wisdom,

made up of 23,000 volumes, the largest and most wonderful collection

of learning ever gathered together by the hands of men. I have built

watch-towers, bridges, and giant monuments, and now, alas! as I approach

the end of my days as ruler of the Middle Kingdom there is nothing more

to be done for my people. Better far that I should even now close my

tired eyes for ever and mount up on high to be the guest of the dragon,

than live on in idleness, giving to my children an example of

uselessness and sloth."

"But, your Majesty," began one of Yung-lo's most faithful courtiers,

named Ming-lin, falling upon his knees and knocking his head three times

on the ground, "if you would only deign to listen to your humble slave,

I would dare to suggest a great gift for which the many people of

Peking, your children, would rise up and bless you both now and in

future generations."

"Only tell me of such a gift and I will not only grant it to the

imperial city, but as a sign of thanksgiving to you for your sage

counsel I will bestow upon you the royal peacock feather."

"It is not for one of my small virtues," replied the delighted official,

"to wear the feather when others so much wiser are denied it, but if it

please your Majesty, remember that in the northern district of the city

there has been erected a bell-tower which as yet remains empty. The

people of the city need a giant bell to sound out the fleeting hours of

the day, that they may be urged on to perform their labours and not be

idle. The water-clock already marks the hours, but there is no bell to

proclaim them to the populace."

"A good suggestion in sooth," answered the Emperor, smiling, "and yet

who is there among us that has skill enough in bell-craft to do the task

you propose? I am told that to cast a bell worthy of our imperial city

requires the genius of a poet and the skill of an astronomer."

"True, most mighty one, and yet permit me to say that Kwan-yu, who so

skilfully moulded the imperial cannon, can also cast a giant bell. He

alone of all your subjects is worthy of the task, for he alone can do

it justice."

Now, the official who proposed the name of Kwan-yu to the Emperor had

two objects in so doing. He wished to quiet the grief of Yung-lo, who

was mourning because he had nothing left to do for his people, and,

at the same time, to raise Kwan-yu to high rank, for Kwan-yu's only

daughter had for several years been betrothed to Ming-lin's only

son, and it would be a great stroke of luck for Ming-lin if his

daughter-in-law's father should come under direct favour of the Emperor.

"Depend upon it, Kwan-yu can do the work better than any other man

within the length and breadth of your empire," continued Ming-lin, again

bowing low three times.

"Then summon Kwan-yu at once to my presence, that I may confer with him

about this important business."

In great glee Ming-lin arose and backed himself away from the golden

throne, for it would have been very improper for him to turn his

coat-tails on the Son of Heaven.

But it was with no little fear that Kwan-yu undertook the casting of the

great bell.

"Can a carpenter make shoes?" he had protested, when Ming-lin had broken

the Emperor's message to him.

"Yes," replied the other quickly, "if they be like those worn by the

little island dwarfs, and, therefore, made of wood. Bells and cannon are

cast from similar material. You ought easily to adapt yourself to this

new work."

Now when Kwan-yu's daughter found out what he was about to undertake,

she was filled with a great fear.

"Oh, honoured father," she cried, "think well before you give this

promise. As a cannon-maker you are successful, but who can say about the

other task? And if you fail, the Great One's wrath will fall heavily

upon you."

"Just hear the girl," interrupted the ambitious mother. "What do you

know about success and failure? You'd better stick to the subject of

cooking and baby-clothes, for you will soon be married. As for your

father, pray let him attend to his own business. It is unseemly for

a girl to meddle in her father's affairs."

And so poor Ko-ai--for that was the maiden's name--was silenced, and

went back to her fancy-work with a big tear stealing down her fair

cheek, for she loved her father dearly and there had come into her heart

a strange terror at thought of his possible danger.

Meanwhile, Kwan-yu was summoned to the Forbidden City, which is in the

centre of Peking, and in which stands the Imperial palace. There he

received his instructions from the Son of Heaven.

"And remember," said Yung-lo in conclusion, "this bell must be so great

that the sound of it will ring out to a distance of thirty-three miles

on every hand. To this end, you should add in proper proportions gold

and brass, for they give depth and strength to everything with which

they mingle. Furthermore, in order that this giant may not be lacking in

the quality of sweetness, you must add silver in due proportion, while

the sayings of the sages must be graven on its sides."

Now when Kwan-yu had really received his commission from the

Emperor he searched the bookstalls of the city to find if possible

some ancient descriptions of the best methods used in bell-casting. Also

he offered generous wages to all who had ever had experience in the

great work for which he was preparing. Soon his great foundry was alive

with labourers; huge fires were burning; great piles of gold, silver and

other metals were lying here and there, ready to be weighed.

Whenever Kwan-yu went out to a public tea-house all of his friends plied

him with questions about the great bell.

"Will it be the largest in the world?"

"Oh, no," he would reply, "that is not necessary, but it must be the

sweetest-toned, for we Chinese strive not for size, but for purity; not

for greatness, but for virtue."

"When will it be finished?"

"Only the gods can tell, for I have had little experience, and perhaps I

shall fail to mix the metals properly."

Every few days the Son of Heaven himself would send an imperial

messenger to ask similar questions, for a king is likely to be just as

curious as his subjects, but Kwan-yu would always modestly reply that he

could not be certain; it was very doubtful when the bell would be ready.

At last, however, after consulting an astrologer, Kwan-yu appointed

a day for the casting, and then there came another courtier robed in

splendid garments, saying that at the proper hour the Great One himself

would for the first time cross Kwan-yu's threshold--would come to see

the casting of the bell he had ordered for his people. On hearing this,

Kwan-yu was sore afraid, for he felt that somehow, in spite of all his

reading, in spite of all the advice he had received from well-wishers,

there was something lacking in the mixture of the boiling metals that

would soon be poured into the giant mould. In short, Kwan-yu was about

to discover an important truth that this great world has been thousands

of years in learning--namely, that mere reading and advice cannot

produce skill, that true skill can come only from years of experience

and practice. On the brink of despair, he sent a servant with money to

the temple, to pray to the gods for success in his venture. Truly,

despair and prayer rhyme in every language.

Ko-ai, his daughter, was also afraid when she saw the cloud on her

father's brow, for she it was, you remember, who had tried to prevent

him from undertaking the Emperor's commission. She also went to the

temple, in company with a faithful old servant, and prayed to heaven.

The great day dawned. The Emperor and his courtiers were assembled, the

former sitting on a platform built for the occasion. Three attendants

waved beautiful hand-painted fans about his imperial brow, for the room

was very warm, and a huge block of ice lay melting in a bowl of carved

brass, cooling the hot air before it should blow upon the head of the

Son of Heaven.

Kwan-yu's wife and daughter stood in a corner at the back of the room,

peering anxiously towards the cauldron of molten liquid, for well they

knew that Kwan-yu's future rank and power depended on the success of

this enterprise. Around the walls stood Kwan-yu's friends, and at the

windows groups of excited servants strained their necks, trying to catch

a glimpse of royalty, and for once afraid to chatter. Kwan-yu himself

was hurrying hither and thither, now giving a final order, now gazing

anxiously at the empty mould, and again glancing towards the throne to

see if his imperial master was showing signs of impatience.

At last all was ready; everyone was waiting breathlessly for the sign

from Yung-lo which should start the flowing of the metal. A slight bow

of the head, a lifting of the finger! The glowing liquid, hissing with

delight at being freed even for a moment from its prison, ran forward

faster and faster along the channel that led into the great earthen bed.

The bell-maker covered his eyes with his fan, afraid to look at the

swiftly-flowing stream. Were all his hopes to be suddenly dashed by the

failure of the metals to mix and harden properly? A heavy sigh escaped

him as at last he looked up at the thing he had created. Something had

indeed gone wrong; he knew in the flash of an eye that misfortune had

overtaken him.

Yes! sure enough, when at last the earthen casting had been broken, even

the smallest child could see that the giant bell, instead of being a

thing of beauty was a sorry mass of metals that would not blend.

"Alas!" said Yung-lo, "here is indeed a mighty failure, but even in this

disappointment I see an object lesson well worthy of consideration, for

behold! in yonder elements are all the materials of which this country

is made up. There are gold and silver and the baser metals. United in

the proper manner they would make a bell so wonderfully beautiful and so

pure of tone that the very spirits of the Western heavens would pause to

look and listen. But divided they form a thing that is hideous to eye

and ear. Oh, my China! how many wars are there from time to time among

the different sections, weakening the country and making it poor! If

only all these peoples, great and small, the gold and silver and the

baser elements, would unite, then would this land be really worthy of

the name of the Middle Kingdom!"

The courtiers all applauded this speech of the great Yung-lo, but

Kwan-yu remained on the ground where he had thrown himself at the feet

of his sovereign. Still bowing his head and moaning, he cried out:

"Ah! your Majesty! I urged you not to appoint me, and now indeed you see

my unfitness. Take my life, I beg you, as a punishment for my failure."

"Rise, Kwan-yu," said the great Prince. "I would be a mean master indeed

if I did not grant you another trial. Rise up and see that your next

casting profits by the lesson of this failure."

So Kwan-yu arose, for when the King speaks, all men must listen. The

next day he began his task once more, but still his heart was heavy,

for he knew not the reason of his failure and was therefore unable to

correct his error. For many months he laboured night and day. Hardly a

word would he speak to his wife, and when his daughter tried to tempt

him with a dish of sunflower seed that she had parched herself, he would

reward her with a sad smile, but would by no means laugh with her and

joke as had formerly been his custom. On the first and fifteenth day of

every moon he went himself to the temple and implored the gods to grant

him their friendly assistance, while Ko-ai added her prayers to his,

burning incense and weeping before the grinning idols.

Again the great Yung-lo was seated on the platform in Kwan-yu's foundry,

and again his courtiers hovered round him, but this time, as it was

winter, they did not flirt the silken fans. The Great One was certain

that this casting would be successful. He had been lenient with Kwan-yu

on the first occasion, and now at last he and the great city were to

profit by that mercy.

Again he gave the signal; once more every neck was craned to see the

flowing of the metal. But, alas! when the casing was removed it was seen

that the new bell was no better than the first. It was, in fact, a

dreadful failure, cracked and ugly, for the gold and silver and the

baser elements had again refused to blend into a united whole.

With a bitter cry which touched the hearts of all those present, the

unhappy Kwan-yu fell upon the floor. This time he did not bow before his

master, for at the sight of the miserable conglomeration of useless

metals his courage failed him, and he fainted. When at last he came to,

the first sight that met his eyes was the scowling face of Yung-lo. Then

he heard, as in a dream, the stern voice of the Son of Heaven:

"Unhappy Kwan-yu, can it be that you, upon whom I have ever heaped my

favours, have twice betrayed the trust? The first time, I was sorry

for you and willing to forget, but now that sorrow has turned into

anger--yea, the anger of heaven itself is upon you. Now, I bid you mark

well my words. A third chance you shall have to cast the bell, but if on

that third attempt you fail--then by order of the Vermilion Pencil both

you and Ming-lin, who recommended you, shall pay the penalty."

For a long time after the Emperor had departed, Kwan-yu lay on the floor

surrounded by his attendants, but chief of all those who tried to

restore him was his faithful daughter. For a whole week he wavered

between life and death, and then at last there came a turn in his

favour. Once more he regained his health, once more he began his


Yet all the time he was about his work his heart was heavy, for he felt

that he would soon journey into the dark forest, the region of the great

yellow spring, the place from which no pilgrim ever returns. Ko-ai, too,

felt more than ever that her father was in the presence of a great


"Surely," she said one day to her mother, "a raven must have flown over

his head. He is like the proverb of the blind man on the blind horse

coming at midnight to a deep ditch. Oh, how can he cross over?"

Willingly would this dutiful daughter have done anything to save her

loved one. Night and day she racked her brains for some plan, but all to

no avail.

On the day before the third casting, as Ko-ai was sitting in front of

her brass mirror braiding her long black hair, suddenly a little bird

flew in at the window and perched upon her head. Immediately the

startled maiden seemed to hear a voice as if some good fairy were

whispering in her ear:

"Do not hesitate. You must go and consult the famous juggler who even

now is visiting the city. Sell your jade-stones and other jewels, for

this man of wisdom will not listen unless his attention is attracted

by huge sums of money."

The feathered messenger flew out of her room, but Ko-ai had heard enough

to make her happy. She despatched a trusted servant to sell her jade and

her jewels, charging him on no account to tell her mother. Then, with a

great sum of money in her possession she sought out the magician who was

said to be wiser than the sages in knowledge of life and death.

"Tell me," she implored, as the greybeard summoned her to his presence,

"tell me how I can save my father, for the Emperor has ordered his death

if he fails a third time in the casting of the bell."

The astrologer, after plying her with questions, put on his

tortoise-shell glasses and searched long in his book of knowledge. He

also examined closely the signs of the heavens, consulting the mystic

tables over and over again. Finally, he turned toward Ko-ai, who all the

time had been awaiting his answer with impatience.

"Nothing could be plainer than the reason of your father's failure, for

when a man seeks to do the impossible, he can expect Fate to give him no

other answer. Gold cannot unite with silver, nor brass with iron, unless

the blood of a maiden is mingled with the molten metals, but the girl

who gives up her life to bring about the fusion must be pure and good."

With a sigh of despair Ko-ai heard the astrologer's answer. She loved

the world and all its beauties; she loved her birds, her companions, her

father; she had expected to marry soon, and then there would have been

children to love and cherish. But now all these dreams of happiness must

be forgotten. There was no other maiden to give up her life for Kwan-yu.

She, Ko-ai, loved her father and must make the sacrifice for his sake.

And so the day arrived for the third trial, and a third time Yung-lo

took his place in Kwan-yu's factory, surrounded by his courtiers. There

was a look of stern expectancy on his face. Twice he had excused his

underling for failure. Now there could be no thought of mercy. If the

bell did not come from its cast perfect in tone and fair to look upon,

Kwan-yu must be punished with the severest punishment that could be

meted out to man--even death itself. That was why there was a look of

stern expectancy on Yung-lo's face, for he really loved Kwan-yu and did

not wish to send him to his death.

As for Kwan-yu himself, he had long ago given up all thought of success,

for nothing had happened since his second failure to make him any surer

this time of success. He had settled up his business affairs, arranging

for a goodly sum to go to his beloved daughter; he had bought the coffin

in which his own body would be laid away and had stored it in one of the

principal rooms of his dwelling; he had even engaged the priests and

musicians who should chant his funeral dirge, and, last but not least,

he had arranged with the man who would have charge of chopping off his

head, that one fold of skin should be left uncut, as this would bring

him better luck on his entry into the spiritual world than if the head

were severed entirely from the body.

And so we may say that Kwan-yu was prepared to die. In fact, on the

night before the final casting he had a dream in which he saw himself

kneeling before the headsman and cautioning him not to forget the

binding agreement the latter had entered into.

Of all those present in the great foundry, perhaps the devoted Ko-ai was

the least excited. Unnoticed, she had slipped along the wall from the

spot where she had been standing with her mother and had planted herself

directly opposite the huge tank in which the molten, seething liquid

bubbled, awaiting the signal when it should be set free. Ko-ai gazed at

the Emperor, watching intently for the well-known signal. When at last

she saw his head move forward she sprang with a wild leap into the

boiling liquid, at the same time crying in her clear, sweet voice:

"For thee, dear father! It is the only way!"

The molten white metal received the lovely girl into its ardent embrace,

received her, and swallowed her up completely, as in a tomb of liquid


And Kwan-yu--what of Kwan-yu, the frantic father? Mad with grief at the

sight of his loved one giving up her life, a sacrifice to save him, he

had sprung forward to hold her back from her terrible death, but had

succeeded only in catching one of her tiny jewelled slippers as she sank

out of sight for ever--a dainty, silken slipper, to remind him always of

her wonderful sacrifice. In his wild grief as he clasped this pitiful

little memento to his heart he would himself have leaped in and followed

her to her death, if his servants had not restrained him until the

Emperor had repeated his signal and the liquid had been poured into the

cast. As the sad eyes of all those present peered into the molten river

of metals rushing to its earthen bed, they saw not a single sign

remaining of the departed Ko-ai.

This, then, my children, is the time-worn legend of the great bell

of Peking, a tale that has been repeated a million times by poets,

story-tellers and devoted mothers, for you must know that on this third

casting, when the earthen mould was removed, there stood revealed the

most beautiful bell that eye had ever looked upon, and when it was swung

up into the bell-tower there was immense rejoicing among the people. The

silver and the gold and the iron and the brass, held together by the

blood of the virgin, had blended perfectly, and the clear voice of the

monster bell rang out over the great city, sounding a deeper, richer

melody than that of any other bell within the limits of the Middle

Kingdom, or, for that matter, of all the world. And, strange to say,

even yet the deep-voiced colossus seems to cry out the name of the

maiden who gave herself a living sacrifice, "Ko-ai! Ko-ai! Ko-ai!" so

that all the people may remember her deed of virtue ten thousand years

ago. And between the mellow peals of music there often seems to come a

plaintive whisper that may be heard only by those standing near, "Hsieh!

hsieh"--the Chinese word for slipper. "Alas!" say all who hear it,

"Ko-ai is crying for her slipper. Poor little Ko-ai!"

And now, my dear children, this tale is almost finished, but there is

still one thing you must by no means fail to remember. By order of the

Emperor, the face of the great bell was graven with precious sayings

from the classics, that even in its moments of silence the bell might

teach lessons of virtue to the people.

"Behold," said Yung-lo, as he stood beside the grief-stricken father,

"amongst all yonder texts of wisdom, the priceless sayings of our

honoured sages, there is none that can teach to my children so sweet a

lesson of filial love and devotion as that one last act of your devoted

daughter. For though she died to save you, her deed will still be sung

and extolled by my people when you are passed away, yea, even when the

bell itself has crumbled into ruins."