(Bell Essay 4) The Ancient Korean Bell and Magoism by Helen Hwang

Part IV  Asking the Dangerous Question:

How Old is the Symbol of Nine Nipples?  

An inquiry about the origin of an ancient female symbolism is subversive in nature. It shakes the ground of patriarchal premises come to be believed rather than understood. The question here is the provenance of the nine nipples sculpted on ancient Korean bells. A focus on the female principle that nine nipples represent hurls the inquirer into uncharted territory. Note that official [read Sinocentric] historiography of East Asia leaves no means to navigate through the beginning of gynocentric civilizations. Where there is no written history, archaeologies and mythologies are rendered anomalous if not obsolete. Thus, tracking the provenance of nine nipples is made to face a quandary, without the mytho-history of Old Magoism.

Pungtak, Gameunsa, Silla Korea
Pungtak, Gameun-sa, Silla, Korea

The relief of nine nipples on the ancient Korean bell has its predecessors. From Silla, a wind chime called pungtak from Gameun-sa (Temple of Gameun) appears to be an immediate model. Much smaller in size (27.8 cm), pungtak is to be hung on the eaves of a pagoda or a Buddhist temple building. Given that the Gameun-sa was completed in 682 CE, the nine nipples of pungtak may well be considered as the precursor of the Sangwon-sa bell (cast 725 CE). Unfortunately, however, we are unequipped to trace the pre-Silla Korean examples of nine nipples under the standard view of Sinocentric ancient Korean history. This will need another space to discuss.

That said, how old is the symbol of nine nipples? Extant ancient bronze bells with nine nipples suggest that it dates back to as early as the introduction of bronze metallurgy in East Asia. On the other hand, however, the existence of nine nipples on ancient pottery bells throws a new light on another scenario that they may predate the Bronze Age. That the use of clay preceded the use of metal is incontestable.

Interestingly, a good number of ancient bronze bells with nine nipples are from the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600 BCE-ca. 1046 BCE) and the Western Zhou dynasty (1046 BCE-771 BCE) of China. Seong Nakju, in his article tracing the origin of ancient Korean bells, states that bells with the nine protruded knobs emerged for the first time between the late Shang and the early Zhou period (see Seong Nakju below in Sources). When something of the female principle, ultimately like the provenance of Mago, is dated to the Shang dynasty [Shang dynasty to be the earliest historical polity of China], it suggests that it was there before the beginning of Chinese history.

On these ancient Chinese bells, the nine knobs are placed in three rows of three in its four corners just like yudu (nipples) of the Korean bell. Nonetheless, there is, among others, a distinction to be mentioned here. The nine knobs of Zhou bells are called “mae” (枚, classifier for small things, mei in Chinese) not “yudu.” The female connotation is absent in ancient Chinese bells. This gender shift or female castration to be precise, however casual it may seem, is no small factor. It has allowed a chasm in the forthcoming history of Chinese bells.

Bell, late Shang or early Western Zhou,
11th-10th century BCE
Bell, Western Zhou, 11th-10th century BCE
Bell, Western Zhou, 11th-10th century BCE
Eastern Zhou Dynasty, Warring States Period (475 - 221 BCE)
Eastern Zhou Dynasty, Warring States Period (475 – 221 BCE)
Bianzhong (Pyeonjong), Eastern Zhou
From the Tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng, dated 433 BC, during the interregnum between the Spring and Autumn Period and Warring States Period of ancient China.
Bianzhong (Pyeonjong), China,
Tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng, 433 BCE

Bells were no mere object for the ancients. They were the channel of epiphany, sacred in short. They represented the divine power derived from Old Magoism during which female shamans ruled. The patriarchal enthronement that took seizure in the course of history, however, marked a discontinuity and changed the nature of the bell’s symbolism to be only nominal, lacking reality. The bell as the symbol of the female principle was no longer effective under patriarchal rules. Why? It was deprived of the reality of the Goddess with which it could reverberate. Thus, it lost its ultimate purpose, to create music, in that the patriarchal ruling principle itself was not “musical,” but dissonant with the rest of the world. One who breaks the harmony can’t own the music! Bells are rendered as a thing that points to the meaning of the past. This is how bells during the era of patriarchal rules came to be objectified as a royal belonging, as seen in the Qing bell of a later time. Ancient sages or even kings and queens of East Asia may have noticed what had gone wrong with the bell and agonized to restore it, the effort for which they were praised as the great thinker or sage ruler.

Imperial Bell, bronze quilt, Qing dynasty, 1746
Imperial Bell, bronze gilt, Qing Dynasty, 1746

The imposing air of authority had to be made visual precisely because the bell could no longer do the magic, engendering the divine power. Thus, highly embellished designs and classifications of various bells were made to cover up the void. Later on, the magnitude of the bell was employed to convey (pseudo-)power, deranged from the female principle.  Nonetheless, the nine nipples seemingly survived in many bells of the Zhou dynasty. I present here some specific bells such as yongzhong (a bell with a cylindrical handle on top), niuzhong (a bell with a semi-circular knob on top), and yangjiaozhong (a bell shaped like ram’s horns) to highlight the various styles of mae.

6th bce eastern zhou 35.5w 18.2 d 14.9 cm from a set of 6
Yongzhong Bell, Eastern Zhou, 6th century BCE
estern zhou 5th bce
Niuzhong, Eastern Zhou,
5th century BCE
earth 5th 13 in
Yangjiaozhong, early 5th century BCE

After all, pyeonjong (bianzhong in Chinese, metal chime bells) is a variation of pyeongyeong (bianqing in Chinese), the stone chime bells (see Part I). This suggests that the making of ancient bells needs to be seen in a continuum rather than as a new invention in the Bronze era. However, we do not have pyeongyeongs with nine nipples. Stone chimes do not seem to have nine nipples.

If ancient East Asians had not carved the nine nipples on a stone bell, then they did it on clay. Pottery bells with nine nipples are found to have co-existed with bronze bells. The level of sophistication and precision in artistry is there as well, as shown in the images. It may be, as experts would explain, that ceramic bells were created to substitute for the costly bronze bells during the Zhou dynasty. However, that should not be always the case. Prior to the Bronze Age, humans invented terracotta technology and brought it to its zenith from which, in fact, metallurgical techniques are likely to have derived. In short, ceramic bells of the Zhou dynasty suggest that the origin of nine nipples predates the Bronze Age.

zhou dynasty ceramic bell
Ceramic Bell,
Zhou Dynasty
Eastern Zhou Dynasty Ceramic Bell --- Image by © Seattle Art Museum/Corbis
Ceramic Bell, Eastern Zhou Dynasty © Seattle Art Museum/Corbis
yung chung pottery bell 27 cm ht warring states period
Ceramic Bell, Warring States Period

Were the nine nipples invented for the first time during the Shang dynasty? The answer to this question remains pure speculation at this point. Here is the drawback of using Sinocentric historiography, which propagates China [read patriarchal ethnocentric establishment] as the origin of East Asian civilizations. When it comes to the female principle of ancient civilizations, the Sinocentric model crumbles. The Chinese did not even call or admit to call the bell’s nipples “nipples.” Furthermore, the nipples disappeared shortly after the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), to be discussed in the next part.

Then, how did the nine nipples come to be part of pre-Zhou bells? Was there any chance that the nine knobs of the pre-Zhou bell were once called nipples? When was the name mae given to them? It is noted that the term yudu was invented to describe the nine nipples sculpted on the upper four corners of the bell, a shift in location perhaps to look more like a woman’s body, after the period of Six Dynasties (6th-3rd century BCE) in China. (See Yeom Yeongha below in Sources.) These questions can only be fully investigated within the historical framework of Old Magoism.

I posit that the provenance of nine nipples predates the beginning of ancient China. The pre-Chinese origin of the nine nipples will become ever transparent in light of the Magoist cosmogony, which attributes music to ultimate creativity, to be discussed in the forthcoming sequel. For now, let me draw a provisional conclusion that the nine-nipple bell was first invented by pre- or proto-Chinese Koreans of Danguk (3898 BCE-2333 BCE) or Joseon (2333 BCE-232 BCE) during which the female was revered as supreme. The nine nipples were designed on bells possibly to commemorate Gom, Magoist shaman ruler and founder of the nine-state confederacy.


Seong, Nakju. “Critique of the Yongjong Theory for the Origin of Sillan Jongs: Comparison of Styles between Yongjong and Sillan Jong (신라종 양식의 용종기원설 비판: 용종과 신라종의 양식대비),” The Sillasa Hakbo, Vol. 7. 2006. [http://blog.daum.net/chakraba/222]

Yeom, Yeongha. The Korean Bell (한국의 종). Seoul National University Press, 1991. [http://www.nohht.com.ne.kr/kbel/kbelp/kbelp-hiskbel.html]

(To be continued in Part V. Read Part III.)

3 thoughts on “(Bell Essay 4) The Ancient Korean Bell and Magoism by Helen Hwang”

  1. Reading this provides a sense of being in touch with the sounds and sights of ancient life. I am glad you are pursuing this esoteric and important information.

  2. I began pursuing the theme of bell as a female body intuitively. I never thought that I will seriously delve into this theme before! Nonetheless, it is the topic that I love researching and writing. I have not reached the climax yet, the Magoist cosmogony that the bell is meant to convey. That is coming but I might have to leave it at that to introduce more direct information of Mago. Eventually all will connect and meet at a juncture to make Mago and Magoism vivid to my readers. Thank you, Donna, for your interest and comments.

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