National Treasure File #29: Emille Bell

In Korean National Treasures on March 17, 2011 at 11:51 pm

With a 5000 year old history, it’s no wonder that Korea has a few items here and there that have a bit of a story behind them.  As a consequence of the attempted cultural dominance from the Japanese occupation in the first half of the 20th Century, these  items now have even more importance.  So much so that since 1962, the government has been cataloging these various items into a National Treasure List.  It may be recalled that number one on that list, the gate at Namdaemun, also known as Sungnyemun, was burned to its foundations in 2008.

Many of the entries are pagodas, temples, celadon vases and other such remnants from former kingdoms.  However, some treasures come with dark stories, intrigue and mazes of interest.  The first item that caught my eye was entry number 29, “The Sacred Bell of King Seongdeok the Great” also known as the Emille (em-ee-leh) Bell.  Now I’ll be honest when I say my interest came from misreading the romanization of Seongdeok as “Seondeok” which was also a very prominent  Queen….and also the subject of a highly popular TV drama that gripped the nation last year.   My pop-culture radar was shamefully on high alert.

But I was not to be disappointed by what I found.  This particular bell is the largest in Korea, standing at 3.3 meters high, 2.27m in diameter and weighing 19.9 tons.  That makes it, really big.  But more than that, it can be heard evenly in all directions and the sound lingers for 3 minutes, which is longer than any other bell in the world.

Not impressed?

Well if you’re not a bell enthusiast or a historical engineering buff, I can see how this would be less than dazzling.  What had me falling down the rabbit hole of historical research, however, was the legend surrounding its casting.  Despite being named in honor of King Seongdeok, it was actually completed by his son, King Gyeongdeok, as it took an extraordinarily long time to complete.  In fact, King Seongdeok never actually saw the bell, as he died before it’s completion in CE 771.  It took roughly 34 years.

The legend goes that the bell was extremely difficult to cast (bearing in mind its size and the lack of tools and know-how of the time), and the first attempt produced no ring.  Subsequent attempts by Gyeongdeok produced similar results, and the mammoth undertaking was proving a costly venture.  In order to fund his commitment, the King needed donations from citizens, and commissioned monks to collect.  Now here’s where the accounts get murky.

Some legends say, that a monk encountered a poor woman who could not contribute, so she sarcastically replied “All I have to give you is my daughter.”  The monk returned, without collecting from the poor woman.  The King, at his wit’s end, consulted a magician to solve the quandry of the bell’s silence.  The magician, in all his wisdom, made the prophecy that a girl should be thrown into the copper during casting in order to make it sound.  The monk, recalling the poor woman’s offer, retrieved the girl, and she was sacrificed alive into the molten copper for the good of the bell.  Just as he had predicted, the bell was completed and it rang clear and true, some say for 40 miles on a clear day.  However the townspeople, upon hearing it’s solemn ring, said the tone was akin to “Em-ee, Em-ee-leh”, which was the ancient Silla word for “Mother, because of mother…..”

A creepy story no doubt.  Of course just like all good creepy stories of myth and legend, they end up losing their spark when science interferes.  A substance trace on the bell in 1998 came up with zero traces of calcium phosphate, which would be be present if there were bone in the mix.  There is also the lack of recorded evidence of the story (it being 771 and all…) and the existence of other similar Chinese legends of the time.   Whatever is to believed, there’s nothing like a good ‘I’ll throw you in the molten copper’ story to scare the kids.


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