The Bell and Drum towers are located at the north end of the central axis of the Beijing Inner City to the north of Dianmen Street in Dongcheng District. The Bell and Drum towers were used to be the time telling center during the Dynasties of Yuan, Ming and Qing from 1271 to 1911. Without completed abandoned, later that time they were still in use, not until 1924 when the last emperor of Qing Dynasty was expelled left the Forbidden City. Up to now, not as a time measuring instrument, sometimes the rings of the ancient timepieces could be heard.
Generally speaking, the Bell and Drum Towers were initially built in 1272 during the Yuan Dynasty, was rebuilt in 1297 during the Yuan Dynasty and in 1420 and 1539, during the Ming Dynasty. The Bell and Drum Towers built in 1272 during the reign of Kublai Khan stood at the very heart of the Yuan capital Dadu. At that time it was known as the Tower of Orderly Administration (Qizhenglou). In 1420, under the Ming Emperor Yongle, the building was reconstructed to the east f the original site and in 1800 under the Qing Emperor Jiaqing, large-scale renovations were carried out. In 1924, the name of the building was changed to the Tower of Realizing Shamefulness (Mingchilou) and objects related to the Eight-Power Allied Forces invasion of Beijing and later the May 30th Massacre of 1925 were put on display. Nowadays, the upper story of the building serves as the Peoples Cultural Hall of the East City District. And after repairing in the 1980s, they were opened to the tourists.
As a time measuring instrument, its usage is much complex than the watch today both on the sides of the time unit and way of measuring.
At the very beginning in the Ming Dynasty, the bell and drum were beaten together both during the day and nighttime. When Qian Long was emperor in the Qing Dynasty, the bell and drum were beaten together only two times at night by two workers who were assigned to beat the bell and drum respectively. First the drum and then the bell was beaten.
In the Qing Dynasty, the hours were marked at night beginning at 7:00 p.m., a procedure that was popularly called "setting the watch." At this hour, the drums were sounded 13 times. After the watch had been "set" in this fashion, each subsequent two-hour interval was marked by a single drum beat. Civil and military officials oriented their lives around these time signals. At the sounding of the third watch (1:00 a.m.) officials attending the morning court audience rose from there beds and at the fourth (3:00 a.m.) assembled outside the Meridian Gate (Wumen). At the sounding of the fifth watch (5:00 a.m.) they entered the Imperial Palace and knelt on the Sea of Flagstones (Haimen) before the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihedian) to await instructions from the emperor.
At seven o'clock in the evening, the drum was beaten followed by the bell to inform people it was time to go to sleep. At nine o'clock, eleven o'clock, as well as one and three o'clock in the morning, only the bell was beaten to avoid awakening the sleeping people. At five o'clock in the morning, again the drum was beaten followed by the bell to inform people to get up. Each time this ritual of the drum being beaten occurred 108 times, 18 times very rapidly and 18 times very slowly. The bell was beaten following the same method.
The two-story structure was made of wood with a height of 47 meters. On its second floor there originally were 25 drums. Among them, there were one big drum and 24 smaller drums. Now, only the big drum is left. The drum is beaten four times a day, for 15 minutes at a time. There are many shops on the first floor where you can buy what you need.
Bell Tower made of bricks and stone, is 48 meters high and also is two stories. On all four sides of the tower there is an arched door on the first floor. A stairway leads to the second floor. On the second floor there is also an arched door with a stone window framing each side. Right in the middle of the second floor is the big copper bell that tells the time. It is hung on a wooden framework. It is the heaviest bell in China. There is a round wooden peg that knocks the bell.
Close behind the Drum Tower stands the Bell Tower, a 33-meter-high edifice with gray walls and a green glazed roof. Each face of the base of the building is pierced with an arched opening and each side of the Bell Pavilion, which stands on the platform, has an arched gateway as well. The Bell Tower first came into use during the reign of the Ming Emperor Yongle, which it was converted, from the main hall of the former Temple of Eternal Peace (Wanningsi), which had been built during the Yuan Dynasty. The new Bell Tower was destroyed by fire after only a brief existence and it was not until 1747 that Emperor Qianlong undertook the reconstruction of an attractive durable stone structure. This building was so sturdy that he only damage that it suffered during the Tangshan earthquake of 1976 was the loss of a single stone animal head decorating the roof.
The Bell Tower originally housed a huge iron bell. But because its tolling was not loud enough, this was replaced by a massive cast bronze bell over 10 inches thick that is in perfect condition today. The iron bell was moved to the back of the Drum Tower where it has remained for over 500 years. As recently as 1924, the bronze bell could be heard ringing out the 7:00 p.m. chime from a distance of over 20 kilometers.
According to legend, an official named Deng tried unsuccessfully for over a year to cast the bell. On the eve of the final casting, his daughter, fearing that further delays and loss of working time would bring blame on her father, decided to sacrifice her life in order to move the gods to bring about a perfect casting, and threw herself into the molten bronze. Her panic-stricken father could only recover a single embroidered slipper from the flames. The casting was a success and the emperor, moved by the young girls spirit of sacrifice, named her the "Goddess of the Golden Furnace" and built a temple in her honor near the foundry. By the ordinary people she was remembered as the "Goddess Who Cast the Bell."
After the bell was installed, the chimes could be heard clearly and resonantly all across the city. But on stormy evenings, the bell would emit a desolate moaning sound similar to the word xie, which means "shoe" in Chinese. Recalling the old legend, mothers would comfort their children with: "Go to sleep! The Bell Tower is tolling. The Goddess Who Cast the Bell wants her embroidered slipper back."