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.]
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”).
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.
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.