The Drum and Bell towers are situated at the northern end of the central axis of the Beijing Inner City to the north of Di' anmen Street. They are at the heart of one of the most historically picturesque parts of Beijing, surrounded by winding hutongs and situated not far from the northern part of the lakes area.
The Drum Tower was first built in 1272 during the reign of Kublai Khan, at which time it stood at the very heart of the Yuan capital Dadu. At that time it was known as the Tower of Orderly Administration (Qizhenglou). In 1420, under the Ming Emperor Yongle, the building was reconstructed to the east of the original site and in 1800 under the Qing Emperor Jiaqing, large-scale renovations were carried out.
In ancient days, the Drum Tower was the time keeping center for the whole city and was equipped with bronze water clocks and drums that were beaten to mark the hours. The water clocks were later replaced with other timekeeping arrangements. The upper story once housed housed 24 drums, of which only one survives. Its head is made of an entire ox hide and is 1.5 meters in diameter. A sword slash on the side of the drum was made by soldiers of the Eight-Power Allied Forces during their invasion of Beijing in 1900.
In the Qing Dynasty, the hours were marked at night beginning at 7:00 p.m.when the drums were sounded 13 times. After the watch had been "set" in this fashion, each subsequent two-hour interval was marked by a single drum beat. Civil and military officials oriented their lives around these time signals. At the sounding of the third watch (1:00 a.m.) officials attending the morning court audience rose from their beds, and at the fourth (3:00 a.m.) assembled outside the Meridian Gate (Wumen). At the sounding of the fifth watch (5:00 a.m.) they entered the Imperial Palace and knelt on the Sea of Flagstones (Haimen) before the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihedian) to await instructions from the emperor.
Close behind the Drum Tower stands the Bell Tower, which first came into use during the reign of the Ming Emperor Yongle. It was destroyed by fire after only a brief existence and it was not until 1747 that Emperor Qianlong undertook its reconstruction. The Bell Tower originally housed a huge iron bell. But because its tolling was not loud enough, this was replaced by a massive cast bronze bell over 10 inches thick that is in perfect condition today. The iron bell was moved to the back of the Drum Tower where it has remained for over 500 years. As recently as 1924, the bronze bell could be heard ringing out the 7:00 p.m. chime from a distance of over 20 kilometers.
According to legend, an official named Deng was given the task of casting the huge bell, and tried unsuccessfully for over a year to carry out the task. As he made one last attempt, his daughter, fearing that her father would be punished if he failed again, decided to sacrifice her life in order to move the gods to bring about a perfect casting, and threw herself into the molten bronze. Her grief-stricken father could only rescue one of her embroidered slippers from the crucible. The casting succeeded and the emperor, moved by the young girl's sacrifice, named her the "Goddess of the Golden Furnace" and built a temple in her honor near the foundry.
After the bell was installed, the chimes could be heard right across the city. But on stormy nights, the bell would emit a desolate moaning sound similar to the word xie, which means "shoe" in Chinese. Recalling the old legend, mothers would comfort their children with: "Go to sleep! The Bell Tower is tolling. The Goddess Who Cast the Bell wants her embroidered slipper back."