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Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Silla Superiority Complex, Part XXVI: Divine Bell of King Seongdeok the Great, Gyeongju, Northern Gyeongsang


The Divine Bell of King Seongdeok the Great (Hanja: 聖德大王神鍾) is a massive bronze bell, the largest Korean bell ever to be preserved, stands 3.75m tall, has a lip diameter of 2.27m, and is 11-25cm thick. In 1997, Gyeongju National Museum weighed it at 18.9 tons. It was also known as the Emille Bell, after a legend about its casting, and as the Bell of Bongdeoksa Temple, where it was first housed. The bell is currently stored in the Gyeongju National Museum (Specific Location: 186 Iljeong Avenue/Iljeongno, Inwang-dong 76-1 beonji, Gyeongju, Northern Gyeongsang) and designated as the 29th national treasure of Korea on December 12, 1962. 

The bell was commissioned by King Gyeongdeok to honor his father, King Seongdeok the Great. However, King Gyeongdeok never lived to see the casting of the bell, as he died in 765 A.D. The bell was finally cast in 771 A.D., during the reign of Gyeongdeok's son, King Hyegong. Because the bell was installed at Bongdeoksa Temple, it has also been called the Bell of Bongdeoksa. The bell is also known as the Emile Bell (에밀레종), a name derived from an ancient legend in which a child was sacrificed in order to give sound to the bell, whose echoes of ‘em-ee-leh’ resemble the traditional Korean word for “mommy.” 

According to legend, the first bell that was cast produced no sound when it was struck. The bell was recast many times but with no success. The king that had wanted the bell cast died after a while and his young son took over with the help of the queen. The son carried out what his father had started but still he didn't have any success. Later, a monk dreamed that if a child was cast into the metal, the bell would ring. The monk then took a child from the village and had her cast into the metal. When the bell was complete, the bell made the most beautiful sound when struck.

Some, however, believe the legend may actually be a modern invention, and that the story and name originated in the 1920s. A story that was published about the "Eomilne bell" (어밀네 종) may have been distorted in retelling. The most recent argument is that legend about other bell became confused with the legend of the Emille bell.

The tubular sound pipe at the top of the bell that helps the sound reverberate is a unique feature that can be found only in Korean bells. The yongnyu, which servers as a loop to hang the bell, has been decorated to resemble a dragon’s head. A band of arabesque patterns can be found at the shoulder, and the striking point of the bell is in the shape of a lotus flower. The magnificent design and inscription methods used in this bell exemplify the craftsmanship of artisan’s from the Unified Silla period. The bell is also inscribed with over one thousand Chinese characters, and its beauty and integrity have been meticulously preserved despite the passage of over 1,300 years.