The hutong alleyways of Houhai (后海) are filled with trendy shops, boutiques, and delicious street food, but within their depths lies a story of a cruel emperor, an impending disaster and an ordinary woman whose sacrifice turned her into a goddess.
The Drum and Bell towers are famous landmarks in China and were an alarm system for citizens of Beijing until the 1920s. However, legend goes that the creation of the Bell Towers famous bell almost ended in tragedy. According to the plaque on the walls of the Bell Tower, just after it was completed the emperor ordered artisans from around China to come to Beijing to create the bell for the tower. However, the artisans had difficulty casting the bell and after three years the Emperor lost patience. To ensure the job would be completed, he gave the artisans 80 days to finish casting the bell, if they failed to do it within the time limit they would all be beheaded. Regardless of this extreme form of motivation, the craftsmen continued to fail and accordingly began to fear for their lives. This included the coppersmith Hua Yan who was in charge of the project. Hua Yan’s 16 year old daughter Hua Xian also felt that there was something odd about the multiple bell casting failures and suspected that there was a spritual reason behind the problems. Worried about her father’s life, Hua Xian took it upon herself to investigate the bell casting furnace area, in the hope that she would find a solution.
On the day of the the deadline the artisans still were running into difficulties and hadn’t been able to successfully cast the bell. While both court officials and artisans had come to look at the furnace which was smelting the copper, it was glaringly obvious to the artisans that something was going wrong. Despite the blazing furnace the copper was not hot enough and even if they tried to cast the bell they would certainly fail, as they realized this the shadow of death seemed to settle even more firmly on the doomed artisans. Out of the blue, Hua Xian rushed up to the furnace and pointed to the sky crying “Look at the sky! Whats that?”
Everyone looked up to see colored clouds approaching but as Hua Yan turned back to his daughter Hua Xian dived into the furnace. Hua Yan desperately tried to grab his daughter, but he was too slow, only managing to grab one of her embroidered slippers before she disapeered into the flames. Suddenly, the flames in the furnace blazed and the molten copper came to the right temperature. Hua Yan quickly called out the order for the bell to be cast even as tears rolled down his cheeks, completing his job as he realized what his daughters intentions were. Because of Hua Xians sacrifice the bell was sucessfully cast, the emperor was satisfied and the lives of all the artisans were saved.
All for this
Here the legend varies according to sources; some say Hua Xian threw herself into the furnace because it would create the additional heat necessary to cast the bell, others say she had realized the gods were angry and her sacrificing herself in the flames appeased their anger. Either way, the outcome of Hua Xians’ bravery was the same, Hua Xian was declared a goddess and the Temple of the Golden Furnace Bell Casting Goddess was built at 24 Xiaohuihu Hutong in her honor. (But still, don’t try this technique at home).
The plaque on the wall of the Bell tower claims that the temple still exists in this spot but it remains to be seen if the bell casting goddess still resides in Beijing helping craftsmen in dire straits or simply watching the bell she gave up so much for.
Cover image from duitang.com