In 1403, China was at the height of its power. At the top of the ladder was the great Emperor Kung-Lo, who had ruled for many years with plenty of success.
One day, towards the end of his reign, he was sitting in the throne room with hundreds of servants by his side. Most notable was his trusted courtier Ming-Lin, who noticed that the Emperor looked particularly sad that day. Falling to the floor and carrying out the customary gesture of knocking one’s head on the floor three times before addressing the Emperor, he spoke.
‘What is wrong, Your Imperial Majesty?’ Ming-Lin asked.
‘I have no more ideas,’ answered the Emperor. ‘I am scared that my children will consider me lazy if I do not come up with more ways to make this country great.’
Ming-Lin came up with an idea.
‘I’ve got it, Your Imperial Majesty! In the north of the city, there stands a bell-tower – a building of magnificent spectacle. But what this building lacks is a signal, something that can reach the people far and wide. What if it had a extraordinary bell that would ring out for miles and miles? It would offer a way to remind the people of your presence and how grateful they all are.’
Smiling, Kung-Lo responded with, ‘What a great idea that is! But who is the person for the job?’
‘I have just the man!’ Ming-Lin continued, ‘His name is Kwan-Yu. He is a good friend and a reliable person. He is well-known for crafting the cannons for your army. A bell should be no problem for someone so talented!’
But what Ming-Lin was not telling the Emperor was that Kwan-Yu’s only daughter was going to marry Ming-Lin’s son. This partnership would strengthen the relationship they already shared with the Emperor and establish their children as favourites with the most powerful person amongst them.
‘Summon him immediately!’ demanded Kung-Lo. And so it was that Kwan-Yu was summoned to the Forbidden City to receive his instructions from the Emperor of China.
‘I want you to make me a huge bell that will ring throughout Beijing!’ Kung-Lo ordered him. ‘Create a bell that will blend the perfect proportions of gold and brass for strength, and silver so that it rings clearly and purely.’ He added, ‘Engrave the sides with the words of wise men.’
But to Ming-Lin’s surprise, Kwan-Yu was not happy to be given the job. ‘I have never made a bell before. Who says I can? I am not even sure what I am supposed to do!’ He exclaimed.
But he was reassured by Ming-Lin, ‘If you can make a cannon out of molten metal, then creating a bell using the same materials will be no problem for you. Make a mould, mix the metal, melt it and then pour it. Don’t worry, my friend!’
That did not stop Kwan-Yu from worrying, however. He searched as for the correct mixtures of metal to use in creating the bell but he was unsuccessful. He surrounded himself with the very best people to help him discover this concoction.
Kwan-Yu's daughter, Ko-Ai, watched her father work and struggle with a worried expression.
‘Father, is there anything I can do to help?’ she asked.
‘No, I'm afraid not. All we can do is mix the metals and pray to the gods that the combination is a success.’
So that is what he did. Every day and night, Kwan-Yu worked himself as hard as possible in his workshop. He separated piles of the different metals and mixed and poured them in as many ways as you can think of. But days and weeks went by and he was no closer to finding the perfect formula.
Throughout this time, Kwan-Yu was constantly asked by the Emperor and his staff when his creation would be finished. To give himself as much time as he needed, Kwan-Yu gave excuse after excuse to hide his failings.
This went on for months until finally the impatient Kung-Lo turned up at his workshop one day.
‘Kwan-Yu, I demand that you cast the bell immediately!’ Kung-Lo said in a loud, impatient voice.
And so he began. He measured out the metals and poured them into the cauldron. His daughter watched on anxiously from the back of the room. Kwan-Yu noticed this just before fueling the fire. As the metals began to melt, he wore a look of uncertainty that was very much like the look on his daughter’s face.
When the liquid had become molten, the Emperor gave the order for the liquid to be poured into the mould.
Kwan-Yu could barely perform the act with steady hands due to his nerves.
He was so nervous and upset that before the process was even completed, Kwan-Yu fell to the floor, grovelling at Kung-Lo’s feet. He knew it had failed. He knew he had failed. As expected, the metals separated into a mismatched mess rather than mixing to create the perfect bell.
‘Please, Your Imperial Majesty. I beg for forgiveness! I have failed!’ said Kwan-Yu. His hands were shaking and his head was facing the floor.
But much to Kwan-Yu’s surprise, the Emperor was not angry. In fact, he was inspired by Kwan-Yu’s failure.
‘Kwan-Yu, do not worry. This is simply a mistake. Nothing more, nothing less. We can learn from it. This is much like our great country. If the metals had mixed correctly, they would have come together to form the most perfect, admirable creation – something the gods would be proud of. But when things go wrong, we are left with a divided horrible mess. China is much like this. We have wars with our own people, which weakens our country socially and financially. If all of the people of this great land would unite together, rich and poor, we could create something that would be more impressive than anyone ever imagined.’
By the time Kung-Lo had finished talking, the people around him were clapping and cheering at his speech. All except for Kwan-Yu, who was still by the Emperor’s feet in disbelief.
‘Take my life, Your Imperial Majesty! I do not deserve to live for my failings!’ Kwan-Yu pleaded.
'Get up at once.’ Kung-Lo ordered him. ‘I may be an Emperor but I am no monster. You will be given a second chance to make amends. A month from now you will be ready to try again. To make the most perfect bell ever.’
And so it was. Kwan-Yu committed himself to this task. Day and night, he separated and mixed and poured the metals, trying to find that winning formula. He barely saw his family during this time. But what was most worrying is that he was living in despair. The despair stemmed from not knowing what his failings were from the first attempt.
How could he fix something when he didn't know what the problem was?
On the day of the second attempt, the Emperor arrived along with his courtiers. At the back of the room, Ko-Ai and her mother watched, afraid. Kung-Lo gave the signal and the molten liquid was poured into the cast.
Shortly after, the cast was broken ... but the bell was no better than the first. It was cracked and ugly and once again the metals had refused to blend properly.
In shock, Kwan-Yu fainted to the floor, unconscious. When he eventually came around and opened his eyes, he was met by the scornful face of the Emperor.
‘I am disappointed in you, Kwan-Yu. The first time this happened, I showed you sympathy. I was not angry – instead, I was supportive. And now, at this second attempt, you have failed me again. You have made me very angry.’ He expressed great unhappiness in his voice.
‘You have but one more chance to get it right, or else you and Ming-Lin will lose your heads!’ The Emperor had never looked angrier than he did right then.
Kwan-Yu returned to his workshop. During this time, his family did not speak to him. He was truly alone. All but for Ko-Ai, who was his only friend. She brought him food for every single meal and always offered to help him.
‘What can I do, Father?’ she asked.
‘Nothing, I’m afraid. We must experiment and pray to the gods that we will find success.’ Kwan-Yu responded.
So Ko-Ai did what was asked of her. She walked to the temple to pray for her father’s success and for his life. But along the way, she heard a voice cry out to her from a small room off the side of the temple.
There, an old man sat calling her. She approached him hesitantly.
‘You are a very loyal daughter,’ he said. ‘I am a very wise man who has been instructed by the gods to give you advice about your father’s creation. What he is trying is an impossible task. Gold and silver will never mix together with base metals on their own.’
‘Then how can I save my father?’ Ko-Ai asked, crying out for help.
‘There is only one way to fuse the metals. It requires the blood of a pure-hearted person – someone like yourself would do the trick. It would be a huge sacrifice indeed.’ The wise old man said.
Horrified by what she had heard, Ko-Ai walked home. She was as sad as she was disturbed by the old man's words.
The days passed by and the third attempt came around quicker than Kwan-Yu could prepare for. He had given up on the chance of success and had instead put in place provisions for his family, expecting the worst.
The Emperor arrived at his workshop, gesturing for the process to begin. For what he thought would be the final time, Kwan-Yu looked to the back of the room where his wife and daughter were, watching the proceedings. He gave them a smile and started to pour the metals, watching the process unfold.
As everybody watched, Kwan-Yu was overjoyed to see his daughter step forward to clutch his hand in support. What he could not have expected was for her to lunge forward, throwing herself into the fiery, seething cauldron before them.
‘I love you, Father! This is for you!’ Ko-Ai cried out. The metal engulfed her entire body. He moved to try and save her but all he could salvage was a single, loose slipper which had fallen from one of her feet.
The weeping Emperor held Kwan-Yu back from jumping in after her. The two of them along with the rest of the room were shocked and disturbed.
But what was most notable is that after the cast was cracked open, the third attempt had produced the most perfect bell. All that had been promised came true.
By the bell-tower, the people rejoiced as the bell was swung into position. Every hour, on the hour, the bell would ring out. It would carry its message across the land, far and wide, and the people would be reminded of the purest, most magnificent bell they had ever heard.
Some say that when the bell rings, Ko-Ai’s cries can be heard. They believe this is because it would remind the people of the sacrifice she made. It was a sacrifice not only for her father and the Emperor of China, but for all the people of Beijing.
Supposedly, a plaintive whisper can also be heard when closer by. ‘Hsieh! Hsieh!’ it goes. ‘Hsieh’ is the Chinese word for slipper.
‘Oh, poor Ko-Ai! She is crying out for her missing slipper!’ The people would say.
As explained earlier, the Emperor had requested that the bell would feature engravings of wise people all over it. But what he said to Kwan-Yu was something to hear.
‘There are no words that can do justice to the sacrifice Ko-Ai made for you, for me, and for the people of this great country,’ he said. ‘There is nothing that can teach the people the lesson of love she has shown us. And so, because of this, I have decided to name her 'The Goddess Who Cast the Bell' and build a temple in her honour. She will help us remember her and teach us what she stood for.’
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