What’s seven feet tall, weighs 6,000 pounds, and makes a loud noise? If you said “a traditional Korean bell,” you would be right, but we would wonder how you knew. Because traditional Korean bells are both ancient and rare, particularly in America. They are so rare that there is only one of its kind in the Western Hemisphere, and it’s located in a tranquil botanical garden in Vienna, of all places.
The Bell of Peace and Harmony is in the Korean Bell Garden of Meadowlark Botanical Gardens. Which is a 95-acre enclave of carefully curated plant collections, scenic lakes and ponds, and suburban woodlands maintained by NOVA Parks. It is a gorgeous spot, so scenic that day passes for photographers frequently sell out.
The 3-ton bell was created in South Korea and shipped to Vienna, and is housed in an ornate classical pavilion. It’s surrounded by a 3-acre garden of mostly open space, in keeping with the Korean tradition of less-is-better when it comes to places of contemplation and worship. Plants include those native to South Korea (look for rose of Sharon, the national flower) and to Virginia (look for dogwood, the state flower).
The Grand Pavilion was assembled seemingly Jenga-style. In the summer of 2011, artisans from South Korea took a pile of white pine and red oak logs, carved them, and put them together without using nails or screws.
The body of the bell boasts bas-relief engravings of flora and fauna, representing symbols important to Korean culture. The Annandale-based Korean American Cultural Committee, chaired by Jeung Hwa Elmejjad-Yi, initiated and raised $1 million for the project, starting in 2005.
The bronze bell is modeled after one from King Seongdeok’s time (702–737 AD). It was designed for the park by Won Kwang-sik, who is, officially, “Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 112,” the only person recognized by the Korean government for his mastery of making bells. He’s a living national treasure.
The bell has no clapper. It is struck on the side by means of a ceiling-mounted log that swings from a chain into the side of the bell. It’s designed to ring longer than other bells—for more than three minutes—and can be heard in all directions. Circa 770 AD, the maker of the bell this was based on spent three years trying to get the sound just so before, legend has it, resorting to the rather desperate measure of throwing a young girl into the molten bronze. As a sacrifice, not an element.
Across the park is a second, smaller pavilion guarded by a pair of Dol Hareubangs. The gray statues—their name translates to “stone grandfathers”—are carved from volcanic rock found on Jeju Island on the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. The statues, gifts from Jeju, depict a figure wearing a mushroom-shaped hat and possessing bulging eyes. Nearby is the aptly named Flower Wall, adorned with impressions of, among others, peonies, chrysanthemums, and lotus flowers. The enclave, with a small koi pond and fountain, is where you’ll find the Wall of the Ten Symbols of Longevity, which is worth a few minutes of study: You are gazing at imagery dating to the introduction of Taoism to Korea in the seventh century.
The Korean Bell Garden is the scene of many outdoor events, particularly traditional Korean weddings. The garden has become a focal point for many of the region’s gradually growing Korean population. Of the more than 2 million foreign-born and Korean Americans living in the U.S., some 250,000 reside in the Washington, DC, area, the third-highest percentage in the country. Fairfax County, home to the Bell Garden, accounts for more than 41,000 residents identifying as Koreans. That was an important factor in placing the garden here, as was Vienna’s proximity to Washington and the Korean embassy.
The bell is a gift intended to unify cultures. An outreach to the American community is apparent in the placement of a granite bench in the park, with a stone book open to pages depicting English and Korean alphabets, a nice touch.