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Ringing a bell for a glorious heritage

Updated: 2022-03-22 08:36 ( China Daily )
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Since moving here, the sheer abundance of history and ancient culture housed within Beijing has provided me with limitless opportunities to photograph some truly amazing sights. The hours I've spent wandering the parks, streets and hutong are never wasted. No matter where you are in the city, you'll always be within eyeshot of some remnant of the capital's venerable heritage.

One particular area I have spent countless hours exploring is Gulou. It's a district steeped in the past, with its streets, buildings, hutong and lakes all retaining their bygone splendor, but above it all, rising formidably up from the central axis, are the Drum Tower and Bell Tower.

Due to its position, regal coloring and imposing scale, the Drum Tower stands out as a more prominent figure, yet tucked away behind it is the arguably more distinctive and visually striking Bell Tower.

Though standing only meters apart and serving somewhat similar functions, these two towers couldn't look more different. Originally built in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) in 1272, the current Bell Tower, constructed out of stone to avoid fire damage, was built in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in 1745.The gray stonework and green and black glazed tile roof of the Bell Tower contrast vividly with the red walls of the Drum Tower, and other ancient buildings more commonly seen in the city, giving it a unique charm and elegance unlike any other. But for as long as I have lived in the city, I have only been able to appreciate it from afar, gazing up from a nearby hutong, as the Bell Tower remained closed.

That was until recently, when after more than a year of renovations, the Bell Tower opened its doors to the public once more. So on a particularly cold Sunday, I took the opportunity to finally take a look inside. Standing at 33 meters tall, the 75 steps leading to the upper floor of the tower were more than enough to shake off the winter chill.

The upper floor of the tower, despite its relatively small size in comparison with many of Beijing's historical sites, has a lot to offer historically, culturally and visually. First and foremost is the bell itself, at around 7 meters in height, 3.4 meters in diameter and 63 tons in weight, it is a hugely impressive piece of artistry and it was said that in ancient times, when rung, the bell could be heard for miles around. Yet arguably the most fascinating thing about the bell is the myth surrounding its creation. The legend, which can be read in full at the tower, tells of how Hua Xian, daughter of the craftsman Hua Yan, sacrificed herself by jumping into the furnace in order to create enough heat to cast the bell that hangs in the tower today.

Turning away from the bell, the open doorways within the tower, designed with the function of sound resonance and amplification, create a perfect vantage point to survey the nearby hutong and courtyards, giving a bird's-eye view of the local residents relaxing, dancing and playing games. Taking a look further afield, the tower offers incredible panoramic views of the city at large.

With views of the CBD commanding the skyline, it puts into perspective the sheer feats of engineering that have taken place here since the days when it was the Bell and Drum towers that dominated the horizon of Beijing, yet they still retain their charm, though dwarfed by their modern counterpoints in the distance.

Whether it's to witness a triumph of ancient architecture, a historical landmark, a bell of mythical origins, or just to take in some great views, the Bell Tower is a place surely worth visiting. Beijing is a constantly evolving metropolis and to take the occasional step back in time and immerse yourself in its history highlights just how remarkable the city is.


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