It’s time to check out these incredible antique musical clocks


In the age of omnipresent high-tech digital gadgetry, mechanical clocks are often (mistakenly) taken for granted. It’s sometimes easy to forget these everyday devices were once considered state-of-the-art technological wonders. Beginning in the mid-17th century, for example, European missionaries visiting China’s Qing dynasty regularly presented intricately engineered, astonishingly ornate musical timepieces to emperors as gifts meant to impress their hosts. These zimingzhong, Mandarin Chinese for “bells that ring themselves,” eventually numbered in the hundreds and were displayed in Beijing’s Forbidden City palace—not only as symbols of opulence, but as tools to accurately track celestial events such as eclipses.

[Related: A brief, 20,000-year history of timekeeping.]

This spectacular zimingzhong once belonged to the emperors of China. It was made in London and travelled more than 8,000km, over land and sea, to reach them at the Forbidden City in the heart of Beijing. When wound, the mechanism causes its nine tiers to slowly rise and you can hear the soft tinkling of music. From ‘Zimingzhong: Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City’ The Palace Museum
At the top of this miniature zimingzhong you can see a tiny armillary sphere – a mathematical instrument which shows the movement of the stars and planets around Earth. Armillary spheres were used since at least 300 BCE in both China and Ancient Greece and were popular with the emperors of China. From ‘Zimingzhong: Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City’ The Palace Museum
When this zimingzhong is wound the miniature birds swim on a glistening pond and three of the potted lotus flowers open. The mechanism which powers them was made in Guangzhou. The maker engraved his name in both Chinese and English: ‘粤东省祥盛号, Cheong Sing’. However, the musical mechanism was made in Europe. It was common for Guangzhou zimingzhong to combine Chinese and European mechanisms. Early 1800s (Qing dynasty). From ‘Zimingzhong: Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City’ The Palace Museum

A glimpse into this “time” is currently on display at the Science Museum in London at its new exhibit, Zimingzhong: Clockwork treasures from China’s Forbidden City. Each of the 23 examples on loan from The Palace Museum of Beijing necessitated the collaborative efforts of hundreds of skilled artisans.

A large part of zimingzhong allure was their ability to showcase the era’s “sophisticated music technology.” After designers converted musical scores into chiming mechanics, the clocks often played melodies such as the Chinese folk song “Molihua” (“Jasmine Flower”).

Creating pieces out of solid gold was expensive. Producers such as James Cox probably hired gilders to coat zimingzhong in gold, possibly using the ormolu technique. This involved pouring molten metal into a mould, leaving it to set and then applying mercury and powdered gold to the surface. When heated, the mercury evaporated and the gold fused to the surface of the metal, creating a beautiful, even finish like the one here. Probably 1750–95 (Qianlong reign); produced by James Cox. From ‘Zimingzhong: Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City’ The Palace Museum
The emperors often instructed the Zimingzhongchu (office of self-ringing bells) to combine parts from across Europe with elements made in the Forbidden City. While the clock in this zimingzhong is attributed to James Cox, a zimingzhong producer, the delicate casing and beautiful decorations are almost certainly Chinese. All zimingzhong made in the Zimingzhongchu had to be approved by the emperor. 1700s (Qing dynasty). Produced by James Cox. From ‘Zimingzhong: Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City’ The Palace Museum
This zimingzhong reflects the fascination and misconceptions that characterised popular attitudes towards China from people in 1700s Britain. With its turbaned figure and tasselled tent, it is an example of a decorative style known as chinoiserie. Inspired by imagery from China, India and Japan, chinoiserie designs presented a generalised view of a European imagined ‘East’. About 1770 (Qianlong reign). From ‘Zimingzhong: Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City’ The Palace Museum

And while each zimingzhong’s craftsmanship is detailed and stunning, that doesn’t mean it always accurately depicts Chinese society. One clock, for example, displays a generic turbaned figure, revealing European’s limited understanding of the “East” that “highlights British people’s interest in China but also their lack of cultural understanding,” Science Museum Group Chief Executive and Director Sir Ian Blatchford explained.

This zimingzhong is delicately decorated with penjing (a potted landscape). Penjing was a popular art form in 1700s China which used real or artificial flowers. It was well known to British audiences from missionary texts and travel writing, such as ‘A Particular Account of the Emperor of China’s Gardens near Pekin’ by Jean-Denis Attiret. Probably 1769–90 (Qianlong reign); made by Timothy Williamson. From ‘Zimingzhong: Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City’ The Palace Museum
The elephant in this whimsical zimingzhong has eyes that roll and a tail and trunk that sway when the mechanism is wound. Today it is one of more than 1,500 zimingzhong which are lovingly conserved and cared for by the Palace Museum Conservation Hospital. Permanently displayed in the Forbidden City, they are enjoyed by people from all over the world. 1700s (Qing dynasty). From ‘Zimingzhong: Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City’ The Palace Museum

Like any trend, zimingzhong timepieces eventually began to fall out of favor. After ascending to the throne in 1796, Emperor Jiaqing voiced his belief that the artform was both unnecessary and expensive, leading to the trade’s decline. Still, zimingzhong clocks remained a favorite heirloom for China’s posher families for years to come.

Today, the beautiful works of art symbolize a pivotal moment in world history and technological collaboration. Although none of the clocks currently on display are working (an effort to preserve the fragile artifacts’ integrity), they represent a monumental time in history.



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