Beat the Drums or Break Them: Bells and Drums as Communication Devices in Early Chinese Warfare

In: Journal of Chinese Military History
Avital Hedva Rom PhD; Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (FAMES), University of Cambridge Sidgwick Avenue, Cambridge CB3 9DA UK

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Warring States (453-221 BCE) and Western Han (206 BCE-9 CE) texts abound in references to drums and bells in discussions of warfare and martial affairs. This begs the question: how are we to understand such references? What role did these instruments have to play on the battlefield? This paper examines the role of sound in early Chinese warfare. By analyzing textual references to sound-producing instruments within the context of warfare, it seeks to emphasize the importance of organized sound production on the battlefield. I argue that, rather than mere ornamental “military music,” drums and bells were perceived by early Chinese strategists as indispensable sonic communication devices, which played a crucial role in victory or defeat in any battle.


Warring States (453-221 BCE) and Western Han (206 BCE-9 CE) texts abound in references to drums and bells in discussions of warfare and martial affairs. This begs the question: how are we to understand such references? What role did these instruments have to play on the battlefield? This paper examines the role of sound in early Chinese warfare. By analyzing textual references to sound-producing instruments within the context of warfare, it seeks to emphasize the importance of organized sound production on the battlefield. I argue that, rather than mere ornamental “military music,” drums and bells were perceived by early Chinese strategists as indispensable sonic communication devices, which played a crucial role in victory or defeat in any battle.

1 Introduction1

“Tang!” The clamor of the beaten drums;
We use our weapons with leaps and jumps.
[Some] toil the land, [or] fortify Cao town
As we alone are marching down.2

In the poem above, cited from the Shijing 詩經 (Book of Odes), drumbeats form the backdrop of a military procession. The appearance of drums (gu 鼓) in the context of the representation of warfare is not unexpected; Warring States (戰國, 453-221 BCE) and Western Han (西漢 206 BCE-9 CE) texts abound in references to drums and bells in discussions of military and martial affairs. This begs the question: how are we to understand such references? What role did these instruments have to play on the battlefield?

The relation between sound-producing instruments and acts of killing and violence is multifaceted. Several sources mention the consecration (xin 釁) of both drums and bells by smearing sacrificial blood on them. Warring States texts—and above all the Zuozhuan 左傳—describe how musical instruments, as well as an array of ritual and military-related objects, were consecrated with the blood of sacrificial animals—or possibly, at times, even with the blood of a human victim.3 Perhaps the best-known story involving a blood-consecrated musical instrument is an anecdote in the Mencius 1A.7. The figure of Mencius in the text describes a case in which King Xuan of Qi (齊宣王 r. 319-301 BCE) is sitting in his hall when he sees an ox being led on a leash. The ox, the king is told, is about to be sacrificed so that its blood might be used for the consecration of a bell. Upon encountering the fragile and frightened look on the ox’s face, however, the king cannot bear the thought of the innocent creature’s killing, and orders that it be set free and that a sheep be sacrificed in its place. Judging by this incident, Mencius then determines that King Xuan of Qi has a heart befitting of a true monarch: “this heart is sufficient to rule with as a king” (是心足以王).4

While the bell referred to in the passage from the Mencius seems to be a ceremonial bell, it is much more common to encounter instances of the consecration of sonic instruments which are intended to be used in war.5 Drums of war, in particular, appear as consecrated with the blood of different sacrificial entities. The relationship between drums and violence begins with depictions of the very origin of the drum. Thus, according to one source, the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi 黃帝) is said to have hunted the mythical Kui 夔 creature to make a thunderous resounding war-drum from its skin.6 The skinning of the magnificent and dangerous creature—who emits a light equal to that of the sun and the moon, and brings about wind and rain as it moves—bears a violent air in its own right. As a war drum, we learn that not only did this drum serve a violent means, but it was also produced in violent circumstances.7

It is no coincidence that these ritual and mythical traditions connect drums and bells with violence—and particularly with acts of war. Archaeological and textual evidence shows that these instruments were commonly present on the early Chinese battlefield. An examination of textual evidence further reveals that during battle, their function was far from limited to the symbolic or the ritualistic. On the contrary, as we shall see below, a variety of sonic instruments such as bells, drums, and even wind instruments were active and essential military communication tools, used for signaling commands to the troops during battle. This function was not unique to China. Drums, specifically, are the oldest known sonic instruments used for signaling. The Persians are believed to have used kettle drums from at least ca. the fifth century BCE, and the Egyptians to have used long wooden drums as early as the sixteenth century BCE, while the Greeks, Romans, Israelites, and other ancient cultures of Europe and the Near East predominantly used horns and trumpets during battle.8 However, the extent to which these methods and codes are elaborated in early Chinese texts is unique in its magnitude, and has received scant attention in scholarly accounts so far. This lack of critical attention can be largely attributed to the lack of porosity of the disciplinary boundaries of scholarly analysis: sound-producing instruments, when placed in a military context, fall in between disciplines and fields of interest. Military historians may mistake them for mere ornamental instruments, bracketing them out of the realm of scholarly enquiry. For them, drums may not seem to be arms per se. For scholars within music-related disciplines, on the other hand, the usage of sound in war does not appear as musical per se. This paper sets out to redress this gap in the literature and examine the role of sound-producing instruments in early Chinese warfare. I argue that the skillful operation of these instruments was considered key to winning battles, a fact that has thus far been unjustly overlooked by scholars. I begin the discussion with a brief investigation of the two types of instruments most commonly found in early Chinese military texts, namely the bell (jin 金) and the drum (gu 鼓). Next, I analyze textual references to these instruments which demonstrate the way they operated on the battlefield. In addition to revealing the complexity of their operation, these textual references prove how immensely important these sonic instruments were perceived to be. Having investigated the way in which early Chinese authors discuss military drums and bells, I then attempt to correct some of our modern misconceptions and challenge the “musicality” of such instruments. By comparing methods of military training with views on how music affects the human body, I suggest that within the context of warfare, these instruments were perceived not as producers of music, but as strategically important communication devices, which are used to signal commands to the troops and are valued above all for their sonic, rather than so-called musical, qualities. While this may seem like a trivial claim to be making, I would argue that changing our own perspective to follow historical perspectives on how sound operated on the battlefield essentially opens the door to a better understanding of communication in early Chinese warfare. Finally, I explore some metaphors that utilize the drum, and examine discussions on the potency of drums which are not played, as markers of battles not fought.

2 The Identity of Jin 金 and Gu

Two main categories of sound-producing instruments dominate Warring States and Western Han military-related textual discussions. The drum—gu 鼓—is the sonic instrument most frequently mentioned in the context of warfare. The jin 金, which I translate as “bell,” is next in frequency. Jin refers to a type of audible metal-made instrument (most likely made of bronze), which often appears in conjunction with gu. Judging by both textual and archaeological evidence, it would seem that the two refer to categories of instruments rather than specific types of drums and bells. The Wuzi 吳子,9 for example, identifies the jin and gu in one place as the pi 鼙 drum and the duo 鐸 bell;10 while the Zhouli 周禮 lists as many as “six [types of] drums” (liugu 六鼓) and “four [types of] bells” (sijin 四金) to be taught to drummers (guren 鼓人), at least some of which were for the purpose of use in the military.11 This suggests that several types of drums and bells were in use in the military. While some kinds of drums and bells, as will be suggested below, shifted their function between the musical or the ritual and the military, others may have been intended exclusively for military use.12

Bell types often associated with warfare include the chun 錞, or chun yu 錞于, the zheng 鉦, and its smaller counterpart, the nao 鐃.13 The ling 鈴 clapper-bells may also have been involved in military practices. Lacking an accurate sound and functioning more as noise-producing bells tied to chariots and horses, they are, however, unlikely to have been used directly for signaling.14 The zheng bell, in particular, is thought to have been used solely for signaling during the Warring States period. Archaeologist and art historian Ingrid Furniss describes the zheng as “a long-shanked mallet-struck” bell, and lists between three and four tombs containing zheng bells alongside barrel drums.15 Relying on the locations of their burials, she argues that there is a very slim chance that zheng ever, even occasionally, served musical purposes. Lothar von Falkenhausen asserts categorically that the sole function of the zheng bells was signal giving, and Li Chunyi also argues for their non-musical usage.16 The chun yu, a large and uniquely shaped bell (see Fig. 2 below), was commonly used for military purposes and, while highly unlikely to have served strictly musical purposes (that is, played performatively and as part of a tune), there is a high probability that it was used in sacrificial ceremonies.17

Figure 1
Figure 1

A Song dynasty illustration of a Zhou period bell, depicting the bell as a dingning, a bronze duo or a bronze zheng

Citation: Journal of Chinese Military History 9, 2 (2020) ; 10.1163/22127453-BJA10005

(Source: Chen, Yueshu)
Figure 2
Figure 2

A Song dynasty depiction of a Zhou chunyu, here depicted as “the bronze chun

Citation: Journal of Chinese Military History 9, 2 (2020) ; 10.1163/22127453-BJA10005

(Source: Chen, Yueshu)

The case is similar with drums—several types of drums seem to have fulfilled military-related functions. While some were used on the battlefield itself, others may have been used in war ceremonies, military drills, and preparations for war. Pole drums (jiangu 建鼓) and small barrel drums (mostly the biangu 扁鼓, which Furniss translates as “flat drum”) are thought to have served for signaling during battle, while other barrel drums, suspended on stands—such as the bird-and-tiger drums (themselves containing a suspended biangu)—may have been used in war-ceremonies.18 Since most texts do not mention the specific type of instrument used, I will refer to the two below simply as “drums” and “bells” or at times, for the sake of emphasis, as “war/military drums/bells.”19 Some musical tunes and some wind instruments are also mentioned in military treatises—and will be discussed here in passing. It is drums and bells, however, that are overwhelmingly present in the texts under study.

3 Sonic Warfare—Sound in War

軍政曰:「言不相聞,故為金鼓;視不相見,故為旌旗。」夫金鼓旌旗者,所以一人之耳目也;人既專一,則勇者不得獨進,怯者不得獨退,此用眾之法也。故夜戰多火鼓,晝戰多旌旗,所以變人之耳 目也。

The Administration of the Army says: “Since they spoke and could not hear each other, they made [military] bells and drums; since they looked and could not see each other, they made banners and flags.” Thus, bells and drums, banners and flags are the means by which to unify men’s ears and eyes. If men reach the point of controlled unity, the courageous ones cannot advance on their own; the cowardly ones cannot retreat alone—this is the method of utilizing the many. Hence in night-fighting [using] more fires and drums, in day-fighting [using] more flags and banners—these are ways of altering people’s ears and eyes.20

The above passage, cited from the Sunzi bingfa 孫子兵法 (“Master Sun’s Art of War,” hereafter Sunzi), is a good starting point for understanding the practical role filled by bells and drums in the military, as it elaborates on both the reasons for using them in battle and the situations in which they were to be used. Compiled at a time when armies were becoming larger and battles more complex,21 the Sunzi provides its readers with a simple and logical explanation for the use of drums and bells. Troops signal to each other by means of sounds, fires, and banners, since they are too widely spread across the terrain to hear or see each other clearly. War drums and war bells are thus used to signal commands by means of sound; fires and banners by means of sight. In a sense, then, all of the above function as a unique code-system, the understanding of which is necessary for a successful progression of military affairs. They work as a substitute for verbal commands or, one could say, as the parallel of the modern Morse code.22 The notion that sonic instruments and bonfires were intended to be used in night-fighting (or in some cases fighting at dusk), with flags and banners as their daytime counterparts, is widely acknowledged in discussions of warfare.23 Both drums and bells together—and drums individually—appear in such discussions, with each having its designated role. Beating the drum generally means that the troops should advance, while sounding the military bell means they should stop moving or retreat.24 Yet the code of conduct and the instructions are not limited in scope to these two commands alone. The exact actions that should be taken for each sonic signal are also enumerated; for example, in the passage below from the Wuzi, several commands are described, involving other sonic instruments which join in and function as sonic signaling devices:


In general, as for the way of war: In daytime [fighting] take banners and flags as regulators [of the troops],25 in night-time [fighting] take bells, drums, reeds, and whistles as regulators. Signal with the banner left, they’ll go left; signal right, and they will head right. Beat the drum for them and they’ll advance,26 strike the bell and they’ll stop short. Blow [the reeds and whistles] twice and they’ll move, blow them again and they will gather tightly; those who do not follow these commands [shall be] punished.27

In most references of this type, however, drums and bells are the only sonic instruments that take part. In some cases, the intensity of their beating is what cues the precise command:

金、鼓、鈴、旂四者各有法。鼓之則進,重鼓則擊。金之則止,重金則退。鈴,傳令也 […]. 一鼓一擊而左,一鼓一擊而右。一步一鼓,步鼓也;十步一鼓,趨鼓也;音不絕,騖鼓也。

The bells, the drums, the jingle bells (ling 鈴) and the flags—these four each have their methods [of use]. Beat the drum for them and [the troops] will advance; double28 the beat and they’ll attack. Strike the bell for them and they’ll stop short; strike faster and they’ll retreat. The jingle bells are the transmitters of commands. […]. To one strike of the drum, the left [foot shall advance], to one strike of the drum the right [foot shall]. One step for one drumbeat is called the “step-drumming”; ten steps for one drumbeat is the “quickstep beat”; when the sound [of the drum] is unbroken, this is the “racing beat.”29

In other passages, the exact number of drumbeats to be beaten in each strike is specified, followed by their corresponding actions on the troops’ side:

吳子曰:「教戰之令,短者持矛戟,長者持弓弩,強者持旌旗,勇者持金鼓,弱者給厮養,智者為謀主。鄉里相比,什伍相保。一鼓 整兵,二鼓習陳,三鼓趨食,四鼓嚴辨,五鼓就行。聞鼓聲合,然 後舉旗。」

Wuzi said: “In the commands educating for warfare [it should be taught that]: the short ones hold spears and halberds; the tall ones carry the bows and crossbows. The strong ones carry the flags and banners; the courageous carry the bells and drums; the feeble ones help support the forces. The wise ones plot and plan. Villages and towns are arranged in balance; squads of ten and five guard each other. To [the sound of] a single beat they set their weapons; to a double beat they exercise a formation; to a triple beat they are urged on to eat; to a quadruple beat they carry out a severe inspection [of their arms]; to a quintuple beat, they move along.30 They [first] hear that the drums are in unison, and only then raise the banners.”31

Not only does this passage from the Wuzi instruct us as to the number (or pattern) of drumbeats that mark each action; it also elaborates on which characteristic qualities should define those who hold the drums. Holding in their hands the military’s most valuable communication device—the signaling device that bonds the troops together—drummers are most likely to be the first targeted by an enemy.32 Thus, the ones chosen to hold the drums and bells should be “the courageous.” Elaborate codes of drumming similar to those depicted in the Wuzi example above feature in a number of other texts and in different versions and variations. Mostly, they appear as instructions to be given to one’s own army. The following Zuozhuan passage, however, describes how familiarity with the drumming manners of the enemy may help win a battle:33

公將鼓之,劌曰,未可,齊人三鼓,劌曰,可矣,齊師敗績,公將馳之,劌曰,未可,下視其轍,登軾而望之,曰,可矣,遂逐齊師,既克,公問其故。對曰: 夫戰,勇氣也。一鼓作氣,再而衰,三而竭,彼 竭我盈,故克之,夫大國難測也,懼有伏焉,吾視其轍亂,望其旗靡,故逐之。

The Duke [of Lu] was about to drum the troops [into battle], when [Cao] Gui said “Not yet!” [Only] after the men of [the state of] Qi have drummed their drums three times, said Gui, “[Now] you can [attack]!”34 The military of Qi suffered a great defeat. The Duke then wanted to chase away [what remained of their forces] with his own forces’ horses. [Again, Cao] Gui said: “Not yet.” He looked down and observed the tracks of the [Qi army] chariots, then climbed up atop the chariot’s crossbar, looked far, and said, “Now!” The troops of Qi were thereupon scattered away as well as defeated, and the Duke inquired about the reasons [Cao Gui advised as he did].

[Gui] replied: “Now war is [all about] valorous qi. The first beat of the drums creates [this] qi, a second beat [causes it] to wane;35 by the third [drumbeat the qi] is all depleted. [Since] theirs was depleted and ours was in its fullest—we won. Now, the [army of] a larger state is difficult to fathom, its weaknesses are deeply concealed. When I saw that their chariot routes were amiss, I looked at the signaling of their banners—hence we chased them away.”36

The concept of qi 氣, which gained popularity as a key term in Warring States-period discourse, is also widely used in military treatises. An active, stirred qi is directly associated with anger and war.37 However, unlike music-related discussions (some of which we shall see below), this term features very little in discussions relating to the usage of sound-producing instruments contained in military accounts. Indeed, if the passage above exemplifies an instance in which qi and drumming techniques appear as closely related, it stands as a rare exception.38 Qi, in this case, emerges as a term integrated into the way ideas are expressed, testifying to an overall discourse of the time, rather than standing in its own right as a principal topic of discussion. Cao Gui does not advise his lord to pay attention to qi, but rather explains—by means of qi—why he should pay attention to the number of drumming occurrences on the enemy’s side. Instead of being theoretical and qi-oriented, his argument is relatively straightforward and concerns the quantity of drumming (and, subsequently, of line assemblages) that renders an army exhausted.

One of the usages of qi in warfare was its deployment in the art of making military prognostications. In such cases, the qi of the enemy was to be analyzed prior to battle, thus enabling the prognosticator—often a music master who could interpret qi through sounds and winds—to foretell the results of an upcoming battle. While the passage above may be mistaken for prognostication, its context and timing—in the midst of the battle scene, when both armies face each other, rather than in advance of heading to war—marks it as something different. This passage, if examined closely, depicts a case of strategic advice on the battlefield itself. In his advice, Cao Gui relies not on the learning of some mystical method, or the analysis of sound, but on his familiarity with drumming habits, and his understanding of the operation of drums by the military of the state of Qi. True, qi here—as in some cases of prognostication—is mentioned as one of the leading factors informing the advisor’s knowledge, yet it is the drums, rather than qi, that are the signifiers of information. It is thus a case of analysis rather than prediction—military advice, rather than military prognostication. Cases of prognostication by means of sound, however, do exist. When it comes to prognostication by means of musical tunes or sounds, rather than drum sounds, the foretelling of a battle’s results bears a more mystical air and the technique underlying it is not quite clear:

晉人聞有楚師,師曠曰,不害,吾驟歌北風,又歌南風,南風不競,多 死聲,楚必無功.

The people of Jin [state] heard that there were troops of Chu [around]. Music Master Kuang said: “[They] are harmless. I sang the Northern Air [tune] several times, followed by singing of the Southern Air—The Southern Air did not prevail, and included many dimmed sounds. Chu will surely have no success.”39

This passage depicts a case of pre-battle prediction, while the previous example involving drums is advice in live battle. It is safe to assume that the singing of tunes (and specifically “airs,” which tend to be gentle and flowing) did not occur on the battlefield itself.40 Drumming and bell-beating, on the other hand, most certainly did. From the examples above one can draw several conclusions concerning the practical usages of early Chinese war-drums and war-bells: drums usually marked advance while bells marked retreat; these instruments provided the troops with a set of audible commands by which to abide, at times in conjunction with additional audible instruments (and almost always in conjunction with visual devices); they were held by those who were considered to be particularly brave; and the knowledge of the drumming codes of one’s enemy could also prove useful in battle. All of the above render sound-producing instruments crucial to victory. It is understandable, then, that their importance is clearly and consistently stressed in texts, and that those striking them ranked high in the military hierarchy.

4 The Importance of the Drums and Bells

The competence of those using the drums is so highly regarded, that the very survival of the individual commander and his whole country is said to lie at the tip of the drumstick. In the following passage, the general himself is mentioned as being the one holding the drums.41 He operates the drums—and his own reputation and life are at stake:


Now, when the general grasps the drum and waves the drumstick; when [he] faces calamities and battle-decisive situations; when [he] accompanies the troops and blades [come to] clash—if he drums for them and they appropriately [abide by his drumming], then he is praised for his achievements and establishes a reputation; if he drums and [the soldiers do] not appropriately [abide by his commands], then he himself dies and the state perishes. This is how survival and demise, peace or danger reside at the tip of the drumstick. How can one not regard the general as important?42

The importance of drums and bells as a type of invaluable military “equipment” is repeatedly stressed in the Wei Liaozi 尉繚子. The passage below emphasizes that the general should prioritize them above all else, to the extent of disregarding his own life:


On the day the general receives the command, he forgets his household; as he enters the field where the soldiers lodge, he forgets his kin; as he holds the drumsticks and drums [for the troops], he forgets himself.43

Immediately thereafter, the text makes the claim that the general’s control of drums is more important than the control of arms:


[When] Wu Qi was facing battle, his assistants handed him a sword. [Wu] Qi said: “The general alone controls the banners and the drums; he faces calamities and resolves uncertainties, directs the army and points their blades [the right way]—these are the affairs of the general. Carrying the responsibility for a single sword is not an affair of the general!”44

The value of an army, we learn elsewhere, lies not in its size, but in its discipline. A core part of this discipline is the troops’ ability to listen to the commands given by drums and bells:


Marquis Wu asked: “How does an army become victorious?” [Wu] Qi replied, saying: “If it is well-managed it becomes victorious.” [The Marquis] again asked: “Is it not in [its soldiers being] numerous or few?” [Wu Qi] replied: “If the methods and commands are not clear, the rewards and punishments are not trustworthy, if you beat the bell for them and they don’t stop, or beat the drum for them and they don’t advance, even if you have a million [soldiers], what use are they?!”45

In the drums and bells, then, lies the outcome of a battle. However, the successful operation of the bells and drums is derived from the troops’ ability to comprehend the commands transmitted to them by these instruments. This, as we shall see below, is a taught, rather than an instinctive, form of comprehension.

5 Sound, Not Music: Changing Our Perception of Sound-Producing Instruments in the Context of Warfare

With the exception of some archaeological accounts which do distinguish between “musical” and “extra-musical” functions of bells and drums, scholars discussing the appearance of military drums and bells in textual sources have generally tended to treat them as musical instruments. For example, when discussing the status of drums as signaling devices, Mark Lewis argues that “[t]he patterns of music thus formed the nerves through which the commands of the general’s mind passed to the collective body of his army, or in the images of natural philosophy they musically gave direction, harmony, and order to the formless qi of the troops.”46 Erica Brindley similarly perceives military drumming and bell striking as a form of music-making, mentioning it within the larger frame of her discussion of music’s effects on the human body. She argues that “the sounds of drums and bronzes could have a clear effect on the morale, spirit, and aim of one’s troops. Because of their effects on the physiology of the body, such sounds could therefore be used to enhance the general health of a military body as a unit.”47 The signaling functions of bells and drums thus almost always appear (oftentimes only in passing) in the context of discussions of, at best, “military/martial music,” or, more commonly, general music histories.48 I wish to suggest, however, that such instruments on the battlefield were not necessarily perceived as “musical.” On the contrary, I argue that it is precisely a willingness to question the “musicality” of these sounds that can shed new light on our understanding of how they were perceived by early Chinese military theorists. Ultimately, and paradoxically, it is in setting these sounds in dialogue with contemporaneous musical thought that we can negate the musicality of this type of sounds. To demonstrate this point, let us briefly examine the role of the listener—the recipient of sound—first in early Chinese musical thought, then in military thought.49 Perhaps the most vivid depiction of the effects of music on its hearers is the following passage from the Xunzi’s 荀子 “Yue lun” 樂論 (Discourse on Music) chapter. In strong and decisive language, this passage conveys the idea that those who listen to music have no choice but to react to it in a uniform manner (note the parts in italics, which emphasize the overarching and all-encompassing influence of music on different groups of humans):


Thus if Music50 is [played] inside the ancestral temples, the ruler and the minister, and the higher and lower ranks listen to it all the same, there is then none who is not harmoniously respectful; if [Music is sounded] within the [residential] doors and gates, and fathers and sons, older brothers and young listen to it all the same, there is then none who is not in harmony with their kin; if [played] within the villages and communities, with the older and younger brothers listening to it all the same, there is then none who is not harmoniously compliant.51

The same account teaches us that this uniform reaction is an instinctive, uncontrollable one. Sound activates a certain form of qi in humans: negative sounds trigger negative qi, and positive sounds activate positive qi. This process is based on a natural mechanism of stimulus (gan 感) and response (ying 應):52

凡姦聲感人而逆氣應之,逆氣成象而亂生焉;正聲感人而順氣應之,順 氣成象而治生焉.

In all cases—when licentious sounds move people, the disruptive qi [from within them] responds; when disruptive qi takes form, chaos arises from it. When correct sounds move people, the compliant qi [from within them] responds; when compliant qi takes form, good order arises therein.53

According to the Xunzi, musical sounds operate within communities by changing their people. Sounds (sheng 聲) and Music (yue) “move men deeply and change them rapidly,”54 and the role of well-governed Music is to ameliorate the heart-minds of the masses (shan min xin 善民心), to avoid the prevalence of “licentious sounds,” and thereby to bring order to society.55 Musical sounds are famous for their ability to “change manners and alter customs.”56 The extent to which humans and their emotions are perceived as malleable in the face of music is further attested in the following passage from the Yueji 樂記,57 which provides an elaborate account of six types of sounds and their precise effects on human society (referred to as min 民, “the people”):

夫人有血氣心知之性,而無哀樂喜怒之常,應感起物而動,然後心 術形焉。是故志微焦衰之音作,而民思憂;啴緩慢易繁文簡節之音作,而民康樂;粗厲猛起奮末廣賁之音作,而民剛毅;廉直經正莊誠之音作,而民肅敬;寬裕肉好順成和動之音作,而民慈愛;流辟邪散狄成滌濫之音作,而民淫亂。

Now humans in their nature have the blood and the qi, the [feeling] heart and the [knowing] mind, and are not constantly in [one of the states of] grief, joy, delight or anger; they react to stimulations by things that arise and move them, and then their mind and skill achieve form therefrom. Thus, when tunes which consider the most minute details and are anxious and grieving are produced, the people are pensive and troubled; when relaxed tunes, slow and easy are produced, the people are tranquil and joyful; when rough and harsh tunes, vigorously rising and fiercely ending, wide and large are being produced, people are resolute and steadfast; when tunes upright and honest in their arrangement, straight, dignified and truthful are being produced, people are respectful and deferential; when tunes [characteristically] generous, magnanimous and soft, pleasant and with complete smoothness, harmonious and dynamic are produced, people are compassionate and kind; when tunes aimless and repellent, evil and scattered and completely barbaric, overflowing and corrupt tunes are produced, the people are licentious and disordered.58

Music in early China, then, was thought to elicit an untamed, instinctive reaction in humans, which affects all its listeners at once. This quality of music is what makes it dangerous at times—and is the reason why the state sought to control the sounds emitted under its rule.59 Its effects are immediate, instinctive, and physical; and indeed (as suggested by Lewis) are transmitted into the human body by means of qi 氣 (an energy, or “stuff” that comprises all things, occasionally translated as “ethers”). In presenting wartime sound-production as essentially inducing qi and causing a physical reaction in the troops, both Brindley and Lewis rely on the assumption that military drumming and bell-striking operate on the troops similarly to the way in which musical sounds operate on individuals and societies. But to what extent can we truly speak of the musical effects on the bodies of the soldiers as being the key to victory or defeat? Are sound-producing instruments used in war still musical? While it is tempting to associate the unity of troops with the spontaneous social unity created by the playing of music, a reading of military accounts suggests otherwise. The secret to a successful reaction to the military drums and bells lies not in instinct. Rather, it is the very opposite—that is, discipline— that underlies the response of the soldiers to such sounds. This discipline is not a spontaneous response of the soldiers to the beat of the drums—but the result of strict training (and conditioning) and of strong military commanding. In other words, it is not qi or the emotion stirred within the troops, but the commands they have to learn and practice prior to battle, that make them take action upon hearing the sound of drums and bells. The method of martial training is depicted in the following passage:


太公曰:「凡領三軍,有金鼓之節,所以整齊士眾者也。將必先明告吏士,申之以三令,以教操兵,起居、旌旗指麾之變法。故教吏 士:使一人學戰,教成,合之十人;十人學戰,教成,合之百人;百人 學戰,教成,合之千人;千人學戰,教成,合之萬人;萬人學戰,教 成,合之三軍之眾;大戰之法,教成,合之百萬之眾。故能成其大兵,立威於天下。」


King Wu asked Tai Gong:60 “Bringing together the multitude [soldiers] of the army,61 if we want the officers and the soldiers to practice [well] and the officers to teach the way of warfare, how do we do it?”

Tai Gong said: “Generally, in leading the army: there are the regulations of the bells and drums by which you tidy and unify the officers and the multitudes. The general should, first of all, give clear orders to his officers in charge, explaining all with three commands—by teaching the changing methods of grasping of weapons, the mobilization of camps, and the pointing and signaling of flags and banners.

“As for training the officers in charge: have one man study warfare. As his studies are complete, have ten men join him [in learning]; ten people [will thus have] studied the art of warfare. When they have completed their studies, have a hundred men join them; a hundred men [will then have] studied the art of warfare. When their studies are complete, have a thousand men join them; a thousand men [will then have] studied warfare. When their studies are complete, have ten thousand men join them; ten thousand men [will have then] studied the art of warfare. When their studies are complete, have the multitude [soldiers] of the army join them—this is the method of the mighty art of warfare. As they complete their studies—have the mass of a million join them. This is how one can bring to accomplishment his grand army and establish fear in [the hearts of] all under Heaven.”

“Fantastic!” said King Wu.62

This method of training in chain results, on the one hand, in all the soldiers responding in unison to a single signal issued by the drum. Yet on the other hand, this unified response of the troops does not at all resemble the human response to music as depicted by musical theorists of the time. A convention common to all musical thinkers of early China is their perception of music as something that stimulates a spontaneous response—either in people or in the natural world around them. The Xunzi speaks of music as relating to people’s deepest emotions and unavoidably sparking joy in them.63 Thus, even music that is carefully planned and not spontaneous in its own right will result in the masses reacting spontaneously. Other accounts, while also acknowledging its effects on humans, refer to Music (yue) and its components as being the final links in a chain of natural instances of spontaneous stimuli and responses. The sounds produced in the context of warfare, however, are neither yue nor any form of music—they do not operate like musical sounds and are not presented as such.64

The soldiers’ responses to the war-drums and war-bells are taught responses rather than spontaneous and emotional ones.65 This implies that drums and bells were not used in war for their musical value, and that they were not seen in that context as musical agents. While they do not operate in a musical way, importance is still attached to maintaining their sonic accuracy:



When the forces are in unison and order; when the formations have been solidly [put into practice]; when the trenches are [dug] deep and the [defense] walls [constructed] high; and in addition they have the benefit of high winds and heavy rains; when the forces are not beset by complications, the flags and banners are set up straight; [when] the sound of the metal bells rises above with purity;66 and the sound of the hand-drums is winding as they call—This is [how one] obtains the assistance of the spirits, and these are portents of great victory.

When the formations and movements are not solid; when the flags and banners are in chaos and entangled with each other; when one is opposing the advantageous directions of great winds and heavy rains, and the officers and troops are terrorized with fear; when the qi is cut off and not orderly; when the war horses are startled and on the run and the military’s chariots have broken axles; when the sound of the metal-bells falls below with muddiness and the sound of the drums is as wet as drenched hair—these are portents of great defeat.67

Such allusions to the drums’ musical essence, however, are uncommon, and can be said to present a sense of sonic clarity and organization rather than musicality. Indeed, the value of war-drums and war-bells as stressed in military-related discussions seems to relate not to their qualities as musical instruments—not to their effect on the emotions of the soldiers—but to their highly practical sonic qualities that make them efficient as communication devices. Unlike their function within the context of music, which operates on human instincts, in warfare the drums activate the masses mostly through their minds. The mechanisms of qi, stimulus and response, and similar natural mechanisms activated in the reaction of humans to music, while occasionally mentioned in a warfare context, are not those emphasized in textual references to sound-producing military instruments.68 Their loudness and unique timbre are what make them helpful to the general, and if they are not heard—loud and clear—the battle is doomed to defeat. For these reasons, I propose that we think of them as “sound-producing” or “sonic” rather than “musical” instruments (or devices).

Before proceeding with the discussion, it should be noted that I do not seek to negate the claim that a culture of martial music—i.e. stylistically militant or military-related music—did exist in early China. Music and dance were unquestionably an indispensable part of pre-battle practices and rituals, utilized to stimulate motivation and morale amongst troops, and to inspire awe and fear in the hearts of their enemies. Lewis notes that prior to battling the Shang, the Zhou troops performed an impressive war dance. This custom seems to have changed in later periods: the Zhou military dance came instead to be represented in ritual as the famous wu 武 (“martial”) dance, while pre-battle military dances in the Warring States included elements of military practice performed in unison to the sounds of drums, music, and chant.69 Such performances were indeed musical in nature, and they constitute what I would define as “martial music.” These practices would have achieved exactly what early Chinese musical performances were meant to achieve—a strong emotional effect and a unified feeling amongst their audiences.70 On the eve of battle, the importance of such sentiments cannot be dismissed. Yet none of these musical practices took place during battle. Conversely, these were military-related ritual practices, which—significant as they may be—were part of the ancient Chinese military culture which surrounded war, but not part of war itself. It may well be the case that some war-drums and bells doubled up as instruments used in such performances—an assumption which is supported by archaeological finds of military bells alongside musical or ritual ones71—but it is nevertheless important that we distinguish between the different functions of these objects, or at least acknowledge that early Chinese thinkers made such distinctions. The culture surrounding warfare is a fascinating subject in and of itself, and it has not received the scholarly attention it deserves.72 However, the focus of our discussion is the utilization of sounds on the battlefield, rather than the examination of all sound that obliquely relates to the military. An analysis of early Chinese cultural expressions of warfare is, regrettably, beyond the parameters of the present article.

6 From Practice to Analogy—Han Dynasty Drum Metaphors

By the middle of the Warring States period, methods of military drumming had seemingly become a matter of conventional, concrete knowledge. This is evidenced by texts from the period, which gradually begin to use these methods in their metaphors and analogies. Edward Slingerland posits a broad conception of metaphor as “the use of one, usually concrete, domain to structure our understanding of another, usually more abstract, domain.”73 Since the drawing of any metaphor relies solely on the familiarity of the reader with what Slingerland calls the “concrete domain” or the “vehicle”74 used as an explanatory tool, we can safely assume that its usage in metaphors proves that military drumming, by this time, was a matter of common knowledge. The Mozi uses this convention to make a claim about righteousness. It tells the story of Wu Lü 吳慮, a person who tills his land in solitude, who puts himself on a par with the mythical emperor Shun, claiming to be as righteous as the latter. Mozi thereupon confronts the man and his assertions, using the military drummer as a metaphor for the teacher of righteousness, rather than a mere practitioner of it:

吳慮謂子墨子曰:「義耳義耳,焉用言之哉?」[…] 子墨子曰:「籍設而攻不義之國,鼓而使眾進戰,與不鼓而使眾進戰,而獨進戰者,其功孰多?」吳慮曰:「鼓而進眾者其功多。」子墨子曰:「天下匹夫徒步之士,少知義而教天下以義者,功亦多,何故弗言也?若得鼓而進於義,則吾義豈不益進哉?」

Wu Lü said to Mozi: “Righteousness is righteousness, what’s the use of talking about it?” […] Mozi said: “Suppose an attack is carried out on an unrighteous state75—between the two who is of greater merit: he who drums and stimulates the multitude into advancing in battle; or he who does not drum and stimulate the multitude into advancing in combat, but advances on his own in combat?” Wu Lü said: “the drummer who stimulated the multitude into advance is of greater merit.” Mozi said: “Among those petty and narrow-minded shi in the world, those who know little about righteousness, but teach the world about righteousness, [themselves] have much merit, what reason is there not to talk about them? If I were to ‘obtain a drum’ to advance righteousness, would my righteousness not be further advanced?”76

Eric Prieto proposes that we analyze metaphors as “interpretive tools rather than as the primary object of interpretation.” He points out that for Aristotle, “the value of the metaphor is in its ability to instruct, to teach us something new about the relation between two objects.”77 If, for the early readers of this text, the drum served as a means by which to explain the workings of righteousness, for us as modern readers—already familiar with the philosophy of the Mozi—the concept of righteousness serves as a tool for re-learning the forgotten significance of the war drum.78 Furthermore, if this metaphor would have made sense to us before, an awareness of the crucial role the drum played in warfare nonetheless allows for a more developed understanding of the emphasis Mozi places on the importance of righteousness and its transmission to others.79

The Huainanzi 淮南子 (compiled under the auspices of Liu An 劉安 king of Huainan, and submitted to Emperor Wu of the Han 漢武帝 in 139 BCE) uses the metaphorical drum on several occasions. The following passage utilizes the image of the drum to metaphorize none other than the military general. Curiously, while the drum referred to in the text is not necessarily a war-drum, the metaphor reveals a generally complex relationship between the drum and music, even when the former is used for musical purposes:


Hence, the drum does not add [its own note] to the five notes, but it is the ruler of five notes; water does not add [its own flavor] to the five flavors, yet it is the conductor of five flavors; the general’s command of military matters is not an addition to the affairs of five offices, yet [he] directs the five offices.80

The general is likened to a drum; he is as much of an outsider to court politics as the drum is to the musical sphere—but a powerful outsider, we learn. The general is a ruler without an office, and the drum is a conductor of music with no tone of its own. In light of the present discussion, this analogy can be seen not only as highlighting the power of the general, but also as magnifying the role of the drum. The drum is a ruler without a realm; a musical instrument that is sometimes not at all musical, as toneless as water is flavorless; yet it is an object that almost becomes a commander in its own right.

Another passage in the Huainanzi may help reiterate the conceptual differences between musical and military theories. The topic of this metaphor is the sage-ruler, who is analogous with the drum. But if, in the previous passage, the drum acts as a director of sound, here it acts as a musical instrument that reacts to human motion:


A drum does not store sounds [of its own], and therein lies its ability of sounding out. A mirror does not hold on to form, therein lies its ability to manifest [any] form. [Musical instruments of] metal and stone (i.e. bells and chimes) have sounds, [but if] unstruck, they shall not ring. Pipes and flutes have voices, [but if they are] not blown, there will not be a sound. The sage stores [actions] within [himself], but does not act as an initiator among things. Affairs come his way—and he then regulates [them]; things appear—and he then reacts [appropriately].81

In this passage the drum is just as musical as any other instrument. Accordingly, it corresponds with the principles of music: it does not store, it responds; it is not taught, but spontaneous. Paralleled with other musical instruments, it acts as “one of them.” The sage is comparable with these instruments, bearing their qualities. To understand this metaphor, the reader should be familiar with the human reaction to music, thus deducing that the sage is able to react instinctively to the affairs and events that come his way. Acting on the principle of stimulus and response the drum—and the sage in its footsteps—begins devoid of contents and reacts to a beat or an external stimulus as it comes. Both of these passages use the drum—gu 鼓—as their metaphoric vehicle. The topics of the metaphors and the function of the drum in each of them, however, are inherently different. These differences are subtle, yet they gesture towards the duality of the drum as both a musical instrument and an instrument external to music. In both cases, the drum produces no note of its own. In the first metaphor (the general as a drum) the drum initiates action; by means of its rhythms, it is in control—or in command—over the tones, and no spontaneity is in action. In the second case, on the other hand (the sage-ruler as a drum), the drum is reactive, not active, and the rhythm it emits is the consequence of an external impetus. Thus, while the drum/general is an operator who actively regulates (military) affairs, the drum/sage is a reactor who shifts (presumably political) affairs by means of organic response.

7 Breaking the Drumsticks: the Power of the Silent Drum

So far, we have focused on sound-producing instruments as sonic communication devices—that is, as devices that actually produce sound. Before we conclude, however, let us examine one further type of reference relating to these instruments—namely, references that deal with them in their unplayed mode. For silent drums, as we shall see, have their own symbolic role to play.

The power of drums and bells lies in the sonic effects they produce in war. However, in the passage below, taken from the Huainanzi, we learn that even the mere sight of the neatly positioned instruments of one’s army should suffice to scare away the enemy:


There are three levels of [conducting] military affairs:

When one orderly governs the state and the households; puts in order the borders and internal territories, puts into practice humaneness and righteousness; spreads virtue and benevolence; establishes correct laws; puts an end to perverse ways; brings together ministers in affinity-like intimacy, and the masses in harmonious collectiveness, the higher and lower ranks in unity of heart, the rulers and ministers in united force—[when] the lords all submit to one’s might and the four directions embrace one’s virtue; [when] one sets straight the governance of the superiors managing the temples and halls, and stretches one’s authority over a thousand li; [when] with hands put together, [one] points here, points there, and all under heaven responds, echoing [their will]—This is the superior form of using the military.


When the terrain is broad and the people are many, the ruler is worthy and the general loyal; when the state is wealthy and the military strong, treaties and pacts are trustworthy, commands and orders are clear; [when] the two levels of the military correspond with each other, the drums and the bells82 face each other; yet before the troops meet and clash blades the enemy flees—This is the second best way of using the military.


When one knows the appropriate [usage] of the ground and the terrain, is familiar with the ways to best use the narrow passes; understands how to alter [between] surprise and routine [tactics];83 and has investigated the execution of the techniques of dispersing and gathering [the troops]; [when one] unbinds the drumsticks and drums [for the troops], when white blades meet and flying arrows collide [in the sky]; when you step in [pools of] blood and follow trails of [spilled] intestines, load the dead on carts and support the wounded, and the blood flows for a thousand li, with exposed corpses filling the battlefield—and with this you emerge victorious—this is the inferior form of using the military.84

We might note that in the superior form of using one’s military forces, that is, in those instances when the military is not deployed at all, drums and bells are not even mentioned. In the inferior form of utilizing the army, the drumsticks are unbound, the drums are beaten, and the battle is won. What is truly striking, however, is what happens in the middle category: this category describes a situation in which one is perfectly prepared for war—but does not have to engage in battle. At the sight of the readily available and organized army, the enemy flees before blades clash. The drums and the bells, visible to the enemy, face each other, ready to be struck. Their sight alone provides the enemy with the information that a strong—and, most importantly, well-organized—military awaits it and is ready for battle. It seems, therefore, that the most desirable thing for a ruler is to be able to keep their war-drums and war-bells silent. “[If] the borders have collapsed, the state is being defended [in the face of the enemy], and the sounds of the [military] drums and bells reach the ear”—we are told in the Han Feizi—“it is then too late to put into use the plans of one’s ministers!”85 Essentially, all seem to agree that is better not to have fought a battle rather than to have fought and won.86

The drumsticks, which in the passage above are untied to mark the beginning of battle, commonly symbolize the unseen line between battle and rest, between clamor and silence. In the following excerpt, they are cast aside with frustration:

趙簡子圍衛之郛郭,犀楯、犀櫓立於矢石之所不及,鼓之而士不起,簡 子投枹曰:「烏乎!吾之士數弊也。」

When Zhao Jianzi was surrounding the walls of Wei, Xi Shun and Xi Lu stood [in a place] where arrows and stones could not reach them. He drummed for the soldiers, but they wouldn’t move. Master Jian threw his drumsticks [in frustration]. “Alas!” he said, “My soldiers are a ruin!”87

The anecdote ends well, with Master Jian eventually learning how to properly drum his troops into battle. Letting go of the drumsticks, however, implies that in that same moment he is unwilling to engage in battle. While in this case the dropping of drumsticks is an act of despair and frustration, in other cases it is an act performed intentionally to eliminate all symbols of war and to mark peace. This usage is documented only in the Huainanzi and nowhere else—but it appears in it three times. To give one example:

昔武王伐紂,破之牧野,[…] 破鼓折枹,弛弓絕弦,去舍露宿以示平易,解劍帶笏以示無仇。于此天下歌謠而樂之,諸侯執幣相朝,三十四世不奪。

In ancient times after King Wu fought tyrant Zhou and vanquished him in Mu Ye […], he destroyed the drums and snapped the drumsticks; unbent the bows and cut their strings; he left his abode to reside outdoors to prove that he was completely at ease. He untied his sword [from his waist] and wore the ceremonial tablets [in its stead] to show that there were no longer any enemies [around]. On account of this, all under heaven sang ballads and rejoiced in him, and the lords brought him gifts of silk and paid respects. For thirty-four generations [the land remained] uninterrupted.88

The drums and bells, then, are both visual and sonic markers of war. The drumsticks represent the border between battle and no battle. When the drumsticks are broken, the drums remain silent, and the realm at peace.

8 Conclusion: Beating the Drums of War. Literally.


At dawn, the king took up the drumsticks, personally leading the sounding of the bells and beating of the dingning, the chunyu, and the zhenduo. The brave and the timid all [to the very last] responded. The forces, roaring aloud, all took formation, their sounds moving Heaven and Earth.89

The roaring echoes of the drums and bells on the early Chinese battlefield were not merely intimidating sound effects. The usage of these instruments within warfare consisted of a complex code system, and the beat of a drum was a matter of life and death, both for the drummer himself and for his whole force. In this paper, I suggested that we reconsider some preexisting modern views on the role of sound-producing instruments within the context of early Chinese warfare. Rather than a rhythmic and dramatic background to battle, or mystical transmitters of belligerent qi, I substantiate that these instruments were perceived as indispensable sonic communication devices (operating side by side with additional visual devices, such as banners and flags), without which any battle from the Warring States period onward was doomed to fail. One of my contentions in this paper was that to truly understand the concept of “military drumming” (or military bell-striking) would mean, first and foremost, to separate it conceptually from the idea of “military music.” The movement of troops in unison, while affected by the so-called musical rhythm of drums, was in essence the result of the extensive learning of codes of conduct in warfare, rather than a spontaneous emotional response. Their well-rehearsed response to sound-producing instruments diverges significantly from the instinctive human reaction to music. Early Chinese theoreticians, as this study has demonstrated, perceived these objects as sonic—but not musical—communication devices, aimed first and foremost to signify commands for the troops to follow. The production of sound in war is thus better thought of as an essentially non-musical object of theorization. I further proposed that as their usage in metaphors shows, the key role of sonic instruments (above all the drum) in battle was a matter of common knowledge by the mid- to late Warring States period. Ultimately, I argue, any comprehensive study of ancient Chinese military strategies should revert to understanding the thinking of early Chinese strategists themselves—and acknowledge sonic instruments not as philosophical, musical, or ornamental elements of warfare, but as valuable military essentials that were necessary for the initiation or cessation of any act of war.


This article is a rearrangement of a chapter from my doctoral thesis, made possible by the generosity of the Louis Cha scholarship and the Chiang Ching-Kuo Foundation. I wish to thank Roel Sterckx for his guidance and patience, as well as Imre Galambos and Bernhard Fuehrer for reading the chapter and providing useful remarks. The topic was presented at the International Academic Conference on Philosophy and Technology in Early China at Yale-NUS College in summer 2017. I wish to thank the conference organizers, as well as Andrew Meyer, Paul Goldin, and Robin D.S. Yates for their helpful feedback during the conference. Lastly, I am greatly indebted to the JCMH editor David A. Graff and the three anonymous readers for their insightful comments. All translations, as well as possible mistakes in the paper are my own.


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