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Epitome of Old Beijing-Gulou and Zhonglou


Gulou (Drum Tower) and Zhonglou (Bell Tower), an ancient architectural complex, are situated at the northern end of the central axis of the Inner City to the north of Di’anmen Street. Approved as part of Major Historical and Cultural Site Protected at the National Level, two towers are juxtaposed in longitudinal direction, forming a grand and magnificent spectacle. Both of them were central to official timekeeping in China in the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties. Among all urban drum and bell towers built in ancient times, Gulou and Zhonglou are the ultimate in scale and shape and one of landmarks of the ancient capital as well as the witness to historical development of China in recent 100 years.

Gulou is 46.7m high and is designed with triple eaves and hip-and-gable roof covered with gray tiles and green glazed tiles on the edge. The two-story building is built in brick-wood structure. The first floor is in a beamless vaulted masonry structure and respectively built with three arches in the north and south and one arch in the east and west, as well as arched door and archway in the northeastern corner.

The second floor housed 25 drums, including one bass drum (symbolizing one year) and 24 ordinary ones (symbolizing 24 solar terms). The only one survived came into use in the late Qing Dynasty, and was lacerated with bayonet by the Eight-Nation Alliance when invading Beijing. 25 new drums are modeled on the size of those during the reign of Emperor Jiaqing of the Qing Dynasty. In the scenic spot, a total of seven drum shows are staged per hour every day and composed according to the 24 solar terms which reflects seasonal variation throughout a year and the farming lifestyle of ancient Chinese people.

On the second floor displays timekeeping devices like Beilou and Bronze Kelou. The former is installed with 12 copper tubes inside with the last one placed above the cymbal. There is a hole on the top of Beilou, from which metal ball passes through 12 copper tubes for 24 seconds and finally beats the cymbal to announce the time. With the time interval between two metal balls of 24 seconds, it will take 14.4 minutes, namely a quarter in ancient times, for 36 metal balls to pass through copper tubes, and take exactly 24 hours for 3,600 metal balls.

Zhonglou is 47.9m high and designed with double eaves and hip-and-gable roof. The materials used to build the large and individual building are brick and stone covered by gray tiles and green glazed tiles on the edge. The tower is installed with an archway with 75 steps leading to the second floor in the northeastern corner. The inner part of the tower is built with a structure that enhanced the transmission and propagation of sound so the building resonates with the sound of the bell, which is a triton of the minnows in the architectural history of Chinese bell tower.

Copper bell for announcing the time displayed on the second floor of the Zhonglou was manufactured during the reign of Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty. The copper bell is hang from wooden support shaped in octagon, 7.02m in overall height and 5.5m in height of bell body, 3.4m in diameter at the bottom, 12cm to 24.5cm in thickness and 63 tons in weight. It is the oldest and heaviest ancient bell in China, known as the “King of the Ancient Bells”. According to ancient Chinese document, this bell was casted in pit-type furnace by adopting traditional mud molding process. Made of bell metal, bell body can generate powerful and lingering sound, like the records stating that the bell could be heard by people inside and outside the capital as far as 5 kilometers away.

Zhonglou and Gulou were originally built in 1272 during the reign of Kublai Khan of the Yuan Dynasty, at which time they stood at the very heart of the Dadu (Beijing nowadays), capital of the Yuan Dynasty. After being destroyed by fire, these towers were rebuilt in 1297 during the reign of Temür Khan (Emperor Chengzong) of the Yuan Dynasty and then were burnt down. In 1420 (the 18th year during the reign of the Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynasty), they were reconstructed, with their site established as the northern end of the central axis of the Inner City. However, they suffered from fire in succession. Gulou was destroyed in the fire caused by thunder and lightning in the 18th year (1539) of the reign of Emperor Jiajing of the Ming Dynasty and was renovated for the third time. And Zhonglou was reconstructed in the 10th year (1745) of the reign of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty. After being renovated for several times in the Qing Dynasty, existing Gulou and Zhonglou were built in the Ming Dynasty and the Qing Dynasty respectively.

As a significant component of landscapes of ancient capital together with nearby hutongs, alleys formed by lines of siheyuan, traditional courtyard residences, these towers are epitome of massive historical and cultural heritages and embody the characteristics of folk culture for an era and distinctive humanistic value. Although the “evening drum and morning bell” has become the memory of Beijing citizens, Zhonglou and Gulou have been an epitome of “Old Beijing” in their deep hearts.


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