The Sacred Bell of Great King Seongdeok

Around 1,200 years ago, a bronze bell weighing upwards of 19 tons was cast and to this day, maintains its original shape and clarity of sound. This bell is the largest temple bell (beomjong) that currently exists in Korea at 3.75 meters high with a diameter of 2.4 meters. At about the same time, a much larger bell weighing in at 50 tons was cast according to historical records of that time but the bell was lost or destroyed during the Mongol invasion. The Sacred Bell took about 30 years to finish and was commissioned by King Gyeongdeok to honor his father, King Seongdeok. After the temple where it was housed for centuries was destroyed by a flood, the bell sat neglected and forgotten until the 16th century when it was rescued and used for hundreds of years to signal time in the city wall of Gyeongju. Today, it resides in the National Museum of Gyeongju where it sits in pride of place at the center of the museum.

There is a really poignant legend that has survived about the bell. The story goes that as so much bronze was needed to cast the bell, monks were sent throughout Korea to ask for donations. One of the monks met a poor woman who told the monk that she had nothing worth of value to donate except her baby daughter. The monk assured her that her sacrifice would not be needed and went on his way. Later when the first bell was cast and tests were done to ring it, the bell failed to make a sound. Nothing could be done to resolve the problem and one night, the monk had a dream in which Buddha appeared before him to ask, “Why did you not take the donation that was offered to you?” The monk realized his mistake and what he needed to do. He returned to the poor woman and asked for her daughter. Here the legend claims that the baby was therefore put in the molten bronze and when the last cast was completed, the bell finally rang with beautiful, crystal clarity. However, anyone who heard the bell was immediately struck by immense sadness because they claimed that the bell made a sound like “emille…..” which translates to “Because of you mother.” That is why the Sacred Bell is also known as the Emille Bell in Korea.

Interestingly, as the practice of human sacrifice was observed in ancient Silla, scientists and historians decided to conduct a test to verify if human remains could be detected in the bell. In 1988, samples were taken from the bell to be tested for phosphorus from human bones. Fortunately, no traces of phosphorus were found but historians believe that at least two humans were sacrificed and buried under the wall where the bell originally stood in order to preserve and strengthen the wall.

One of the interesting physical aspects of the bell is in its composition. While the bell could’ve been cast in iron, the people of Silla knew that swords made of brass lasted longer than swords made of iron as they resisted corrosion. Therefore, they chose brass as the main component of the bell. Brass is actually an alloy of tin and copper, so the Silla artists cast several bells with different ratios to hit upon the most ideal for their purpose. Too much tin made the bell brittle and fragile but too much copper made the sound of the bell dull and murky. In the end, they settled on a combination of 18% tin and 82% copper. When taken in context with brass bells created in Europe and even other Asian countries like China, this alloy was quite unique. In Europe, bronze bells were made with a 23% concentration of tin. It is most likely the higher levels of copper that have kept the Sacred Bell in such pristine condition after all these years.

Another fun fact is that the ancient practice of making bells is still used today, so in the 90s, two copies of the bell were commissioned by the Korean government. One was sent to Los Angeles and named The Korean Bell of Friendship. Another copy stands in Seoul. Though the same process (well documented in historical text) was diligently followed, both copies of the bell failed to make the same crystal clear ring as the original Sacred Bell. It seems there was another secret that the artists took to their graves. This reminds me of the mystery of the Stradivarius violin. While modern technology has made possible the exact breakdown of materials used in the wood curing process and resin used on the completed violin, no new copy has been successful in recreating the rich, deep sounds and unbelievable projection of a Stradivarius.

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