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THE VOICE OF THE BELL
WHEN Tai Jo, the great general and first King of Korea, founded a new dynasty, he moved the capital near the great river Han and resolved to build a mighty city called Han Yang, or the Castle on the Han. It was to have a high wall around it and lofty gates on each side. However, the people commonly called the city Seoul, or Capital. All the roads in the kingdom lead to it.
Happy was he when the workmen, in digging for the foundations of the East Gate, came upon a bell. It was a lucky omen and they carried it at once to the king. He had it suspended over the entrance to his palace and there it still hangs.
But such a bell could only tinkle, while King Tai Jo wanted one that would boom loud and long. He was especially anxious about this, for in Silla, once a rival state, there had hung for centuries one of the biggest bells in the world and Tai Jo wanted one that excelled even that famed striker of the hours. He would have even a larger bell to hang in the central square in the heart of Seoul, that could be heard by every man, woman and child in the city. After that, it must be able to flood miles of hill and valley with its melody. By this sound the people would know when to get up, cook their breakfast, sit down to supper, or go to bed. On special occasions his subjects would know when a king's procession was passing, or a royal prince or princess was being married. It would sound out a dirge when, His Majesty being dead, all the land must mourn and the people wear white clothes for three years and Korea become the land of mourners. The guardian spirit of the city would have its home in the bell.
Word was sent out by messengers who rode on big horses, little ponies, donkeys and bulls to all the provinces, publishing the king's command to all governors, magistrates and village-heads to collect the copper and tin to make the bronze metal. The bell was to stand ten feet above the ground and be eight feet across; that is, as high and wide as a Korean bedroom. On the top, forming the framework, by which the bell was to be hung, were to be two terrible looking dragons. Weighing so many tons that it would balance five hundred fat men on a seesaw, only heavy beams made of whole tree-trunks could hold it in the belfry, which must be strong enough to stand the shaking when the monster was rung. It had no clapper inside, but without, swung by heavy ropes from pulleys above, was a long log. This men pulled back and then let fly, striking the boss on the bell's surface. This awoke the music of the bell, making it toll, boom, rumble, growl, hum, croak, or roll sweet melody, according as the old bellman desired.
So the procession of bullock carts on the roads to Seoul creaked with the ingots of copper. Many a donkey had swallowed gallons of bean soup at the inn stables before he dropped his load of metal in the city, while hundreds of bulls bellowed under their weight of the brushwood and timber piled on their backs to feed the furnaces, which were to melt the alloy for the casting of the mighty bell.
Deep was the pit dug to hold the core and mould, and hundreds of fire-clay pots and ladles were made ready for use when the red-hot stream should be ready to flow. All the boys in Seoul were waiting to watch the fire kindle, the smoke rise, the bellows roar, the metal liquify and the foreman give the signal to tap.
When the fire-imp in the volcano heard of what was going on, he was awfully jealous, not thinking ever that common men could handle so much metal, direct properly such roaring flames, and cast so big a bell. He snorted at the idea that King Tai Jo's men could beat the bells that hung in China's mighty temples or in Silla's pagodas.
But when there was not yet enough and the copper collectors were still at their work, one of them came to a certain village and called at a house where lived an old woman carrying a baby boy strapped to her back. She had no coin, cash, metal, or fuel to give, but was quite ready to offer either herself or the baby. In a tone that showed her willingness, she said:
"May I give you this boy?"
The collector paid no attention to her, but passed on, taking nothing from the old woman. When in Seoul, however, he told the story. Thus it came to pass that many heard of the matter and remembered it later.
So when all was ready, the fire-clay crucibles were set on the white-hot coals. The blast roared until the bronze metal turned to liquid. Then, at the word of the master, the hissing, molten stream ran out and filled the mould. Patiently waiting till the metal cooled, alas they found the bell cracked.
The casting was raised by means of heavy tackle, erected at great expense on the spot, and the bell was broken up into bits by stalwart blacksmiths, wielding heavy hammers. Then a second casting was made, but again, when cool, it was found to be cracked.
Three separate times this happened, until the price of a palace had been paid for work, fuel, and wages, and yet there was no bell. King Tai Jo was in despair. Yet, instead of crying or pulling his topknot, or berating the artisans, who had done the best they could, he offered a large reward to any one who could point out where the trouble lay, or show what was lacking, and thus secure a perfect casting. Thereupon out stepped a workman from the company, who told the story of the old woman and said that the bell would crack after every cooling unless her proposal was accepted. Anyway, he said, the hag was a sorceress, and if the child were not a real human being no harm could be done.
So the baby boy was sent for and, when the liquid metal had half filled the pit, was thrown into the mass. There was some feeling about "feeding a child to the fire demon," but when they hoisted the cooled bell up from the mould, lo, the casting was a perfect success and every one apparently forgot about the human life that had entered the bell. Soon with file and chisel, the great work was finished. The hanging ceremonies were very impressive when the bell was put in place on the city's central square, where the broad streets from the South Gate and those looking to sunrise and sunset met together. Suspended by heavy iron links from the staple on a stout timber frame, the bell's mouth was exactly a foot above ground. Then, around and over it, was built the belfry. The names of the chief artisans who cast the bell and of the royal officers who superintended the hanging ceremonies were engraved on the metal. It was decided, however, not to strike the bell until it was fully housed and the sounder or suspended log of wood, as thick as the mast of a ship, was made ready to send forth the initial boom.
Meanwhile tens of thousands of people waited to hear the first music of the bell. Every one believed it to be good luck and that they would live the longer for it. The boys and girls could hardly go to bed for listening, and some were afraid they might be asleep when it boomed. The little folks, whose eyes were usually fast shut at sunset, begged hard to stay up that night until they could hear the bell, but some fell asleep, because they could not help it, and their eyes closed before they knew it.
"What shall the name of the bell be, your Majesty?" asked a wise counselor.
"Call it In Jung," said King Tai Jo. "That means 'Man Decides,' for every night, at nine o'clock, let every man or boy decide to go to bed. Except magistrates, let not one male person be found in the street on pain of being paddled. From that hour until midnight the women shall have the streets to themselves to walk in." The royal law was proclaimed by trumpeters and it was ordained also that every morning and evening, at sunrise and sunset, the band of music should play at the opening and shutting of the city gates.
So In Jung, or "Masculine Decision," is the bell's name to this day.
But as yet the bell was silent. It had not spoken. When it did sound, the Seoul people discovered that it was the most wonderful bell ever cast. It had a memory and a voice. It could wail, as well as sing. In fact, some to this day declare it can cry; for, whether in childhood, youth, middle or old age, in joy or gladness, the bell expresses their own feelings by its change of note, lively or gay, in warning or congratulation.
At nine o'clock in the first night of the seventh moon — the month of the Star Maiden of the Loom and the Ox-boy with his train of attendants, who stand on opposite sides of the River of Heaven and cross over on the bridge of birds, the great bell of Seoul was to be sounded. All the men were in their rooms ready to undress and go to bed at once, while all the women, fully clothed in their best, were on the door-steps ready, each with her lantern in hand, for their promenade outdoors.
Four strong men seized the rope, pulled back the striking log a whole yard's distance and then let fly. Back bounded the timber and out gushed a flood of melody that rolled across the city in every direction, and over the hills, filling leagues of space with melody. All the children clapped their hands and danced with joy. They knew they would live long, for they had heard the sweet bell's first music. The old people smiled with joy.
But what was the surprise of the adult folks to hear that the bell could talk. Yes, its sounds actually made a sentence.
"Mu-u-u-ma-ma-ma-la-la-la-la-la-la—" until it ended like a baby's cry. Yes! There was no mistake about it. This is what it said:
"My mother's fault. My mother's fault."
And to this day the mothers in Seoul, as they clasp their darlings to their bosoms, resolve that it shall be no fault of theirs if these lack love or care. They delight in their little ones more, and lavish on them a tenderer affection because they hear the great bell talk, warning parents to guard what Heaven has committed to their care.