Washington’s Bells: Bell of Peace and Harmony

Suspended like a ripe fruit within a hilltop pagoda, tucked into the rolling Virginia landscape, among the rich tapestry of foliage and flower at the Meadowlark Botanical Gardens, just beyond Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, a bell hangs. But this is no ordinary bell. Its prominence, scale, symbolism, and craftsmanship announce this as a bell of distinction.

Humble roots, aspirational dreams

In 2006, a delegation from the Korean-American Cultural Committee arrived at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, Virginia, to scout a suitable site for a bell garden. The garden was meant to celebrate the deep cultural ties between two great nations, while revering nature and magnifying its qualitative effects on the human condition. According to an ancient Korean apothegm: A bell implants a righteous spirit and gives rise to hope and cherished desire in a person, alarms people against disaster, and gathers people for united action, in order to bring prosperity, happiness, friendship, freedom, and peace for the people. A fitting addition to a garden, indeed.

After identifying a suitable knoll at Meadowlark, the Korean-American delegation set to work, reaching a memorandum of understanding with the Northern Virginia Regional Parks Authority authorizing the bells placement, and raising approximately $1 million for construction of the bell and surrounding gardens. Over 80 percent of the funds were amassed through private donations from the Korean community in Washington, with the remaining 20 percent was gifted by the South Korean government. The entire project took five years to complete.

Why the duration? The Korean Bell Garden is the first of its kind in the Western Hemisphere and the first Korean bell pavilion on the East Coast (the Korean Bell of Friendship and its pavilion were donated by South Korea to San Pedro, Los Angeles, California, in 1976). The bell was designed and cast in the centuries-old Korean bellmaking tradition, which dates to the Shilla Dynasty (57 BC – 935 AD). Made of bronze, the Bell of Peace and Harmony was cast in Korea, weighs over 6,000 lbs. (three tons), and measures almost 7.5 ft. in height. When tolled (and it takes a log to do it), the bell reverberates for over 3 minutes.

The Bell of Peace and Harmony is sounded by striking it with a large wooden log.

Emblazoned in bronze across the bell’s surface are symbols of both nations: the Rose of Sharon (the national flower of Korea) and the dogwood and cardinal (Virginia’s state flower and bird, respectively), along with ten traditional symbols of longevity: sun, mountain, water, cloud, stone, pine tree, white crane, turtle, reishi mushroom, and deer. Each were sculpted by hand and cast with the final bell under the watchful eye of master bellmaker Won Kwang-sik (a man designated as Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 112 by the Korean government). The abundance of bilateral cultural icons makes this bell globally unique in design and arrangement.

Won Kwang-sik makes a bell using a traditional beeswax casting method. Image credit: Jincheon Bell Museum and Korea Times.

Also engraved on the bell are the words "Peace and Harmony," celebrating the strong ties that unite the two great nations (and giving the bell its name). It is modeled after the stunning Bell of King Seongdeok that hangs in Gyeongju, South Korea.

A pavilion to match

With great bell comes great responsibility. Bell pavilions have existed for centuries as enchanting focal points in a landscape, while also serving the very tangible purpose of protecting the bells within. Korean craftsmen, working in a traditional style, built the wooden pavilion to accommodate the one-of-a-kind bell. Remarkably, no nails were used in construction. Wood from native white pine and red oak was carved so that each locked snuggly into adjoining pieces. A traditional tile roof made of hwangto, or ocher (a type of reddish-yellow clay), arches upward and completes the pavilion. 

The result is an ornate pavilion that nestles seamlessly within the surrounding 95-acre landscape and native plant collections. It is enhanced by the surrounding presence of a Northeast Asian plant collection, sculpted turtle fountain, pond, stone harubang statues from Jeju Island, and four wooden "jangseung" from Jeolla Province – traditional Korean totems meant to protect villages against evil spirits, fire, and other calamities. The classic, natural Korean garden aesthetic shines throughout. 

Hear it ring

The Korean Bell Garden at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens is available to the public throughout the year (with open dates varying seasonally), but the bell only rings on a handful of special occasions, including at the summer solstice, as part of the Korean Festival each May, and during the National Bell Festival.