The Drum Tower and the Bell Tower in Beijing were used for keeping and announcing time for almost 700 years. Drums and bells were used in China for over 2,000 years to tell the time and every major city had a drum tower and bell tower. From 1272 to 1924 the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower in Beijing were used for announcing the time.
The two towers were originally built in 1272 during the Yuan Dynasty when China was ruled by Kublai Khan. At that time the capital of China was called Dadu not Beijing. The towers were destroyed by fire soon after construction and were not rebuilt again until 1420.
After the fall of the Yuan Dynasty and the establishment of the Ming Dynasty in 1368, Dadu was renamed Beijing, the city was extended, the Forbidden City was built and the city was laid out on its current north south axis. In 1420 the site of the towers was moved east to their current site on the most northern end of the north south axis.
The Bell Tower was destroyed again by fire again and the current tower was built again in 1745 during the Qing Dynasty. That time with fire prevention in mind.
Telling the Time
In ancient China people used a unit of time called Geng and the night was divided into 5 Gengs.
1st Geng at dusk was called the Xu Shi (dog) or Ding Geng was from 19:00 to 21:00
2nd Geng announced the time for to sleep was called Hai Shi (pig) from 21:00 to 23:00
3rd Geng announced the middle of the night was called Zi Shi (rat) from 23:00 to 1:00
4th Geng announced the dawn of a new day was called Chou Shi (ox) from 1:00 to 3:00
5th Geng heralded the dawn of a new day was called Yin Shi (tiger) or Liang Geng from 3:00 to 5:00
When the 1st and 5th Gengs were announced, the drums in the Drum Tower were beaten first followed by the striking of the bell in the Bell Tower. When the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Gengs were announced the Drum Tower was silent and only the bell in the Bell Tower was stuck.
Every night in Beijing when the Bell Tower sounded for the first Geng, the city gate was closed, traffic was stopped and the streets were cleared.
Time keeping devices
A number of time keeping devices were used in the Drum Tower to measure time and replicas of some of those devices are still on display in the tower. Listed below are two examples of time keeping devices.
Beilou – A 2.2 meter tall and 1.4 meter wide device that used rolling metal balls, copper piping and cymbals to measure time. A rolling metal ball would hit a cymbal every 24 seconds, 36 metal balls took 14.4 minutes to hit the cymbal and in 24 hours, 3,600 metal balls would hit the cymbal.
Bronze Kelou – This device recorded time in ancient times by regulating the flow of water through a small opening and cymbals where struck eight times for every 15 minutes.
Rebuilt on the northern point of the axis that runs from Qian Men Gate through Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, the two towers are roughly 100 meters apart and are separated by small square called Culture Square. The square has been a flourishing commercial center for over 700 years and the the Bell Tower is on the northern side of the square with the Drum Tower on the southern side.
Both towers were originally built of stone and wood and had similar appearances. After the second reconstruction in 1745, the Bell Tower was rebuilt with brick and stone to avoid being destroyed by fire again. The Drum tower was built with stone and wood in a similar manner to the original towers. The result is that the two towers now look very different.
Drum Tower – The tower itself is a very large squat building 46.7 meters in height with triple eaves and a hip and gable roof design made mostly out of stone, wood and grey tiles. The tower only has two floors and the first floor has a very small lobby that leads of into the workers quarters (off limits to tourists) and the second floor holding the drums and time keeping devices.
The Drum Tower used to hold 25 watchman’s drums. There was one main drum representing the whole year and 24 mass drums representing the 24 solar terms. Only one drum now remains in the tower.
There is a balcony surrounding the second floor that provides stunning views of Beijing’s inner city. When I visited the Drum Tower only the southern side of the balcony over looking the Forbidden City was open to the public.
Bell Tower – The tower has a height of 47.9 meters and with double eaves and a hip and gable roof like the Drum tower. The materials used to build the Bell Tower are brick and stone covered by black glazed tiles. The tower uses an masonry and beam free arched structure for fire prevention. The inner part of the tower was built with a structure that enhanced the transmission and propagation of sound so the building resonated with the sound of the bell.
The first floor of the Bell Tower is a tea house with an extensive range of teas and tea drinking accessories on sale. The first floor also has private tea drinking rooms for customers. The second floor holds the ancient bronze bell and has a walk way circling the tower. The north, west and south walk ways were accessible but the east walk way was blocked. The Bell Tower provides excellent views of the nearby hutongs.
The Bell Tower’s bell is the heaviest and largest ancient bell in China with a height of 7.02 meters, a diameter of 3.4 meters, a maximum thickness of 24.5 centimeters and a weight of 63 tons. Records state that the bell could be heard by people out side the capital as far as 5 kilometers away.
Both towers can only be accessed through very narrow and steep stairways.
The easiest way to reach the two towers and Culture Square is to catch the subway on line 2 to Gulaodajie station. Take the B exit and walk south down Jinggulou Street. After around 10 minutes walking you will see the towers to your left. The towers are the tallest structures in the area so you will have no trouble finding them.
Tickets and Times
Individual tickets to the Bell and Drum Towers are 15rmb each and through tickets for both sites are 30rmb. Buying a through ticket will not save you any money but it avoids having to line up at the ticket offices twice.
The opening times of the Bell Tower is 9:00 to 5:00pm
Drum performances are held in the tower roughly very hour at 9:30, 10:30, 11:30, 13:30, 14:30, 15:30, 16:30 and 17:20