Duung…Duung…Duung…Duung. That, readers, is the sound of the mighty Drum and Bell Towers, Beijing’s bastions of time-keeping, sounding out the nightly curfew in the Qing dynasty. These twin towers of power are at the heart of our latest Limited Edition Public Walking Tour with Beijing Postcards, The Nightwatch.These incredible structures have survived waves of upheaval over the centuries, but how much do you really know about them? Test your knowledge with our 5, little-known facts below.
1. The Bell Tower used to be a cinema
According to this photograph belonging to Beijing Postcards, the Bell Tower operated as a cinema for a time during the early 20th century (you can just about make out the Chinese characters on top of the tower). This is backed up by In Search of Old Peking, a guide to the city written in the 1930s by American resident L. C. Arlington. We can’t confirm whether there was popcorn, though.
2. (Much) later you could play pool inside…
Long-term Gulou resident, founder of Plastered T-Shirts and friend of Bespoke Dominic Johnson-Hill, remembers playing pool inside the Bell Tower in the early 1990s. So neglected was the building, he didn’t realise until later what it was. “I just wondered why the steps were so steep,” he recalls.
3. The Drum Tower was only used at night, and struck throughout!
The great drums would beat to sound the curfew after nightfall in Qing dynasty Beijing. Thereafter, the drums would sound every two hours to coordinate the patrols of the Nightwatch, until dawn. Goodness knows how anyone got any sleep!
4. They were the tallest structures in Beijing
For centuries they towered over the rest of the city – even the Forbidden City’s Hall of Supreme Harmony. The Drum and Bell Towers would have dominated the lives of all folks living in sight and within earshot. Exploring the surrounding low-rise hutongs on the Nightwatch Tour, you’ll get a sense of how imposing these buildings would have been.
5. The Bell Tower is still in use
A tour guide at the Bell Tower told us that every year, on the first day of Chinese New Year, the great bell is rung. We’ve never heard it (several Bespoke employees live close by) but then again, the fireworks are probably drowning it out!
Discover even more about the Drum and Bell Towers on our The Nightwatch Limited Edition Public Walking Tour. To book tickets or find out more, click here. To hear from tour designer Lars on how he researched the tour, click here.
About the author: Tom O’Malley is Propaganda Secretary at Bespoke Beijing. A lifestyle journalist, guidebook author, glutton and bon vivant, Tom is a tireless crusader for fine food, hospitality and tourist experiences in China’s capital.