These two structures sit at the north end of Imperial Beijing’s central axis and have been
telling the time since the Yuan Dynasty, though they have been rebuilt many times since
then. At 7pm every evening the striking of the drum and then the bell marked the official
bedtime; the bell then chimed at two-hour intervals throughout the night until 5am when the
drum and then the bell sounded the wake-up call.
Dating from 1272, the Yuan Dynasty Drum Tower was originally made of wood and used to
house 25 drums, of which only the large main drum still survives. The stone-built Bell Tower
was added in the Ming Dynasty but was rebuilt in the 18th century after it was destroyed by
fire. It contains one huge bell, said to be the heaviest in China, which was still rung at 7pm
until 1924, when Emperor Puyi left the Forbidden City. The first attempt at casting this huge
ringer failed and the Emperor threatened that if the next one was not made perfectly all the
bell makers would be executed. They duly forged another bell – but when it failed to set, the
daughter of the bell-maker, believing that she too would die, leapt into the molten bronze,
leaving just her embroidered shoes. The bell set and everyone was saved, but it is still said
that on quiet nights you can hear the ghost of the girl calling for her shoes.