The Soul Of The Great Bell

The water-clock marks the hour in the Ta-chung sz’,—in the Tower of
the Great Bell: now the mallet is lifted to smite the lips of the metal
monster,—the vast lips inscribed with Buddhist texts from the sacred
Fa-hwa-King, from the chapters of the holy Ling-yen-King! Hear the
great bell responding!—how mighty her voice, though
tongueless!—KO-NGAI! All the little dragons on the high-tilted eaves
of the green roofs shiver to the tips of their gilded tails under that
deep wave of sound; all the porcelain gargoyles tremble on their carven
perches; all the hundred little bells of the pagodas quiver with desire
to speak. KO-NGAI!—all the green-and-gold tiles of the temple are
vibrating; the wooden goldfish above them are writhing against the sky;
the uplifted finger of Fo shakes high over the heads of the worshippers
through the blue fog of incense! KO-NGAI!—What a thunder tone was
that! All the lacquered goblins on the palace cornices wriggle their
fire-colored tongues! And after each huge shock, how wondrous the
multiple echo and the great golden moan and, at last, the sudden
sibilant sobbing in the ears when the immense tone faints away in broken
whispers of silver,—as though a woman should whisper, “Hiai!” Even so
the great bell hath sounded every day for well-nigh five hundred
years,—Ko-Ngai: first with stupendous clang, then with immeasurable
moan of gold, then with silver murmuring of “Hiai!” And there is not a
child in all the many-colored ways of the old Chinese city who does not
know the story of the great bell,—who cannot tell you why the great
bell says Ko-Ngai and Hiai!

Now, this is the story of the great bell in the Ta-chung sz’, as the
same is related in the Pe-Hiao-Tou-Choue, written by the learned
Yu-Pao-Tchen, of the City of Kwang-tchau-fu.

Nearly five hundred years ago the Celestially August, the Son of Heaven,
Yong-Lo, of the “Illustrious,” or Ming, dynasty, commanded the worthy
official Kouan-Yu that he should have a bell made of such size that the
sound thereof might be heard for one hundred li. And he further
ordained that the voice of the bell should be strengthened with brass,
and deepened with gold, and sweetened with silver; and that the face and
the great lips of it should be graven with blessed sayings from the
sacred books, and that it should be suspended in the centre of the
imperial capital, to sound through all the many-colored ways of the City
of Pe-king.

Therefore the worthy mandarin Kouan-Yu assembled the master-moulders and
the renowned bellsmiths of the empire, and all men of great repute and
cunning in foundry work; and they measured the materials for the alloy,
and treated them skilfully, and prepared the moulds, the fires, the
instruments, and the monstrous melting-pot for fusing the metal. And
they labored exceedingly, like giants,—neglecting only rest and sleep
and the comforts of life; toiling both night and day in obedience to
Kouan-Yu, and striving in all things to do the behest of the Son of

But when the metal had been cast, and the earthen mould separated from
the glowing casting, it was discovered that, despite their great labor
and ceaseless care, the result was void of worth; for the metals had
rebelled one against the other,—the gold had scorned alliance with the
brass, the silver would not mingle with the molten iron. Therefore the
moulds had to be once more prepared, and the fires rekindled, and the
metal remelted, and all the work tediously and toilsomely repeated. The
Son of Heaven heard, and was angry, but spake nothing.

A second time the bell was cast, and the result was even worse. Still
the metals obstinately refused to blend one with the other; and there
was no uniformity in the bell, and the sides of it were cracked and
fissured, and the lips of it were slagged and split asunder; so that all
the labor had to be repeated even a third time, to the great dismay of
Kouan-Yu. And when the Son of Heaven heard these things, he was angrier
than before; and sent his messenger to Kouan-Yu with a letter, written
upon lemon-colored silk, and sealed with the seal of the Dragon,
containing these words:—

“From the Mighty Yong-Lo, the Sublime Tait-Sung, the Celestial and
August,—whose reign is called ‘Ming,’—to Kouan-Yu the Fuh-yin:
Twice thou hast betrayed the trust we have deigned graciously to
place in thee; if thou fail a third time in fulfilling our command,
thy head shall be severed from thy neck. Tremble, and obey!”

Now, Kouan-Yu had a daughter of dazzling loveliness, whose
name—Ko-Ngai—was ever in the mouths of poets, and whose heart was even
more beautiful than her face. Ko-Ngai loved her father with such love
that she had refused a hundred worthy suitors rather than make his home
desolate by her absence; and when she had seen the awful yellow missive,
sealed with the Dragon-Seal, she fainted away with fear for her father’s
sake. And when her senses and her strength returned to her, she could
not rest or sleep for thinking of her parent’s danger, until she had
secretly sold some of her jewels, and with the money so obtained had
hastened to an astrologer, and paid him a great price to advise her by
what means her father might be saved from the peril impending over him.
So the astrologer made observations of the heavens, and marked the
aspect of the Silver Stream (which we call the Milky Way), and examined
the signs of the Zodiac,—the Hwang-tao, or Yellow Road,—and
consulted the table of the Five Hin, or Principles of the Universe,
and the mystical books of the alchemists. And after a long silence, he
made answer to her, saying: “Gold and brass will never meet in wedlock,
silver and iron never will embrace, until the flesh of a maiden be
melted in the crucible; until the blood of a virgin be mixed with the
metals in their fusion.” So Ko-Ngai returned home sorrowful at heart;
but she kept secret all that she had heard, and told no one what she had

At last came the awful day when the third and last effort to cast the
great bell was to be made; and Ko-Ngai, together with her waiting-woman,
accompanied her father to the foundry, and they took their places upon a
platform overlooking the toiling of the moulders and the lava of
liquefied metal. All the workmen wrought their tasks in silence; there
was no sound heard but the muttering of the fires. And the muttering
deepened into a roar like the roar of typhoons approaching, and the
blood-red lake of metal slowly brightened like the vermilion of a
sunrise, and the vermilion was transmuted into a radiant glow of gold,
and the gold whitened blindingly, like the silver face of a full moon.
Then the workers ceased to feed the raving flame, and all fixed their
eyes upon the eyes of Kouan-Yu; and Kouan-Yu prepared to give the signal
to cast.

But ere ever he lifted his finger, a cry caused him to turn his head;
and all heard the voice of Ko-Ngai sounding sharply sweet as a bird’s
song above the great thunder of the fires,—”For thy sake, O my
” And even as she cried, she leaped into the white flood of
metal; and the lava of the furnace roared to receive her, and spattered
monstrous flakes of flame to the roof, and burst over the verge of the
earthen crater, and cast up a whirling fountain of many-colored fires,
and subsided quakingly, with lightnings and with thunders and with

Then the father of Ko-Ngai, wild with his grief, would have leaped in
after her, but that strong men held him back and kept firm grasp upon
him until he had fainted away and they could bear him like one dead to
his home. And the serving-woman of Ko-Ngai, dizzy and speechless for
pain, stood before the furnace, still holding in her hands a shoe, a
tiny, dainty shoe, with embroidery of pearls and flowers,—the shoe of
her beautiful mistress that was. For she had sought to grasp Ko-Ngai by
the foot as she leaped, but had only been able to clutch the shoe, and
the pretty shoe came off in her hand; and she continued to stare at it
like one gone mad.

But in spite of all these things, the command of the Celestial and
August had to be obeyed, and the work of the moulders to be finished,
hopeless as the result might be. Yet the glow of the metal seemed purer
and whiter than before; and there was no sign of the beautiful body that
had been entombed therein. So the ponderous casting was made; and lo!
when the metal had become cool, it was found that the bell was beautiful
to look upon, and perfect in form, and wonderful in color above all
other bells. Nor was there any trace found of the body of Ko-Ngai; for
it had been totally absorbed by the precious alloy, and blended with the
well-blended brass and gold, with the intermingling of the silver and
the iron. And when they sounded the bell, its tones were found to be
deeper and mellower and mightier than the tones of any other
bell,—reaching even beyond the distance of one hundred li, like a
pealing of summer thunder; and yet also like some vast voice uttering a
name, a woman’s name,—the name of Ko-Ngai!

And still, between each mighty stroke there is a long low moaning heard;
and ever the moaning ends with a sound of sobbing and of complaining, as
though a weeping woman should murmur, “Hiai!” And still, when the
people hear that great golden moan they keep silence; but when the
sharp, sweet shuddering comes in the air, and the sobbing of “Hiai!
then, indeed, all the Chinese mothers in all the many-colored ways of
Pe-king whisper to their little ones: “Listen! that is Ko-Ngai crying
for her shoe! That is Ko-Ngai calling for her shoe!


Posted on September 9th, 2008 in Ghosts | 4 Comments »

4 Responses to “The Soul Of The Great Bell”

  1. Maria says:

    I felt pity for Ko-ngai 😥

  2. piaeyuelae says:

    i knew this story when i was in elementary, i think. then in highschool, we study again this lesson about the soul of the great bell. it was great but in the ending was not. 🙄 😕
    in the philippines 😆

  3. harlhene says:

    can u give the elements of that story ??? please …

  4. Sophieee says:

    I personally like the story, even though it’s not a happy ending. My assignment is to make a story map of this one, and I’m thankful to find this website. It’s similar to my book (which I left at the bookshelf of my classroom).

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