The Drum and Bell Towers in the city of Beijing were constructed in the fifteenth century (although they have been rebuilt or enhanced a few times since then) and share a sort of park as well as panoramic views over Beijing’s old city. The drums and bells were used in tandem for centuries to broadcast the official time to Imperial Peking – at least until 1924, when the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty was forced to leave the Forbidden City.
You can buy a combined ticket for entry to both the Drum and Bell towers and in both, the draw is the eponymous attraction and the view, with the attraction different but the views pretty much the same, since the towers sit practically side-by-side.
The steps leading to the tops of both towers and those panoramic views are incredibly steep, in a medieval way that made me afraid I would be forced to drop to my knees halfway and finish both the climb and the descent in a crawl through fear and exhaustion. I triumphed over vertigo and conquered both towers without the embarrassment I felt in the second grade when I climbed the ladder to a friend’s treehouse and was then afraid to climb back down, starting a lifelong habit of just sitting and crying until someone comes along.
The Drum Tower contains the drums used in the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics; there are performances several times throughout the day to demonstrate how the drums were used and the power of their sound, and with the apparent use of the high-ceilinged, beamed chamber at the top of the tower as an amplifier, I don’t doubt that the drums were heard all over the city in their day. There is also a water clock and a gong that somehow combined to ring out quarter and half hours…. I wasn’t really clear on that.
At over sixty tons, the bell at the top of the Bell Tower dwarfs our own Liberty Bell, but they didn’t ring the bell for us. Considering the noise it probably would have made (since they say it can be heard for twenty kilometers), I can only think that was a good thing. The story behind the bell goes that the emperor demanded a bronze bell, which was difficult due to the size and which was cast several times unsuccessfully. The daughter of one of the craftsmen, fearing the emperor’s wrath against her father, threw herself into the furnace at the time of firing, at which point the bronze changed color (no big wonder there) and the bell emerged pristine, saving the craftsmen. There is a plaque at the top of the Bell Tower commemorating this girl, known as the Zhuzhong Lady.
At both towers, as was true most other places I went, there were a lot of guards and a lot of security, including body scans and an x-ray machine for your bags. If the resident cat was guarding anything, frankly, it was slacking on the job.