Origin and types of bronze mirrors in East Asia

Prototype bronze mirrors

The prototype for bronze mirrors was thought to have been the bronze clothes buttons of Karasuk cultural nomads (c. 1500-1400 BC) in the south of Minusinsk steppes from the late 3rd – early 2nd millenniums BC. However, some of the earliest examples of Chinese bronze mirrors belonged to the Neolithic Qijia culture from around 2000 BC. and decorated bronze discs thought to be mirrors were found in northwest China between 2000 and 1750 b.c.e. (all of  which pre-date the Karasuk culture).

According to Britannica, “In the second half of the 2nd millennium BC in the region of Minusinsk, a Sinid group broke in that brought with it a bronze inventory of Ordos (northern China) type. Cemeteries of single graves covering the dead in extended position in stone cists, equipped with round-bottomed pots, appeared. New people mixed with the local Andronovo population. Through this immigration the so-called Karasuk culture originated and spread its influences farther to western Siberia and Russian Turkistan. Trade relations extended to central Russia. Exchange with the centres of the Far Eastern metallurgy introduced a new character of material culture (daggers and knives terminating in animal sculptures, series of ornaments) and stimulated the flourishing of metal industry in a wide area. The regions west of Minusinsk–Altai, Kazakhstan, and Kirghizia–show variations of Karasuk culture with strong local elements with which the persistence of the ancient racial type corresponds. Chronology of this period is based on comparisons with northern Chinese bronzes. … Vital trade contact is traced from northern China and the Baikal region to the Black Sea and the Urals, influencing the uniformity of the culture.”

Arzhan 2 kurgan barrows had two finds of bronze mirrors dated to late 7th century B.C. and the Altai mountain’s Ice Maiden and Kazakhstan’s Issyk warrior priestess’ mirrors are dated at 500 and 400 BC respectively. The Pazyryk rattle-mirrors and those found in the Altai region are thought by some scholars to have originated in India (because of the elephant motif) although no early mirrors have yet been found in India or Pakistan. Early dates come from the mirrors carried by priestesses in Egypt and Crete (silver and bronze, and copper) mirrors dated to 1800 and 1600 BC. but these are still later than the Chinese mirror.

Bronze mirrors were the favourite products of ancient Chinese inhabitants, as well as of the Yayoi and Kofun period peoples. During the Shang and Zhou Dynasty periods, the reflective mirror held great significance as oracle ritual items for the ruler.

In the Yin period, the button backs cast with incised decorative designs became valuable products used as mirrors for daily use and for dressing in ancient times. Experts tell us that, with the Mirror of Yin as an example, the designs showed that the bronze object was used as a art pictorial mirror or an illustrative device to tell a parable or moral story. Later Han mirrors such as the Yamaguchi mirror inherited this moral storytelling tradition with mirrors’ pictorial motifs bearing the narrative elements of the Story of Wu Zixu. (The Han people were especially fond of rhetoric, dialogue and storytelling and their mirrors reflect this.)

In 658 b.c.e. an entry in the Tso Chuan, China’s oldest narrative history, described a certain individual with the words “Heaven has robbed him of his mirror” that is, made him blind to his own faults. So the purpose of mirrors had a spiritual and moral purpose – to reflect not only one’s face, but one’s heart and soul.

In Yayoi and Kofun times, Chinese mirrors were symbols of rulership or kingship, diplomatic gifts from China and status items exchanged with the sealing of political alliances. They were often traded, exchanged as diplomatic and political gifts, kept as grave goods in tombs and passed on as clan heirlooms.

Different features and designs developed in different periods, with the various symbols and inscriptions on the back of the mirror indicative of the politics, economy, ideology, culture and social custom of the age.  Bronze mirrors were typically round, polished brightly on one side, with designs on the back.  Han and Tang mirrors were the most sophisticated.

However, bronze mirrors only became popular during the Warring States period. And mirrors began to be mass-produced only during the Han Dynasty with the proliferation of the TLV mirror (see explanation below). Bronze mirrors remained popular through the Song Dynasty ceasing  to be produced after the Western mirrors were introduced during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

The development of Chinese bronzes had mainly undergone three historical periods including Xia, Shang and Zhou, during which, the decoration style of bronzes had turned into simple from dignified. And at the same time, the social function of bronzes had also gradually turned into applied tools from the sacrifice appliances. The patterns of bronzes consisted of state Taotie pattern, Kui pattern and metrical pattern respectively called Qiequ and Huandai, and later, Panchi (mini-dragon) pattern and Gongzhan (combat) pattern, etc.

The animal birthday symbols are the most typical having emerged in the Sui Dynasty, continuing through the Tang Dynasty, Song, Liao and Ming Dynasties. Such examples have been unearthed in numerous places.Through the State-war and Han periods, the decorative designs became more and more subtle and sophisticated.

Types of decorations:

Decorative knobs

Bronze mirrors with knobs appeared in the State-war period and in Han period they were found in large numbers with diversified decorative designs. The knob was often in the center for easy attachment to clothing. But the number of knobs could vary from 4, 5, 6…to 48, 55… The mirror with the most knobs – 100 knobs is now kept at the provincial Museum of Shanghai. The quantity of knobs or other signs on a mirror to set up a name is often used by experts to explain the significance of the knobs variously. (Source: Analysis on bronze mirror with knobs found from Ha Tinh and some problems about this type)

Renkomon patterns

Early Han dynasty bronze mirror with renkomon design (Yamaguchi Board of Education)

Early Han dynasty bronze mirror in renkomon style from Yoshinogari (Saga Prefectural Board of Education) Source A pattern of interconnected arcs is characteristic of the renkomon style. The Early Han Dynasty in the photo above has an inscription saying “Though long we shall not meet, for long let us not forget,” is legible. Bits of cinnabar adhered at several points to the decorated surface. Diameter 7.4 cm

TLV symbols: The TLV bronze mirror was a bronze mirror that was popular during the Han Dynasty in China. It was so called because called TLV mirrors because the engraved symbols resemble the letters T, L, and V. Produced from around the 2nd century BC until the 2nd century AD, the dragon was an important symbol of these early TLV mirrors. Bronze mirror with dragons and divinities design (excavated from a 4th – 5th century Kofun )

Later, dragon motifs were replaced by winged figures, monsters and immortals.

A TLV mirror dating from the Eastern Han Dynasty, 1st-2nd century AD.

A TLV mirror dating from the Eastern Han Dynasty, 1st-2nd century A.D. (Smithsonian Institution)

Mirrors from the  8th to 23rd century AD Xin Dynasty, usually have an outer band with cloud or animal motifs, and an inner circle with a square containing a knob. The inner circle often contains a series of eight ‘nipples,’ and various mythological animals.

The central square could have an inscription, or contain the characters of the Twelve Earthly Branches. Inscriptions placed in between the mirror’s sections frequently discuss Wang Mang and his reign.

A bronze mirror with triangle border design of deities and animals was excavated from the Manai Burial Mound (see photo below).

Excavated from the Manai burial mound (early 4th c. large keyhole-shaped tomb) in Tondabayashi City. There are two types of bronze mirrors with triangle design borders of deities and animals: those made in China and those made in Japan by imitating the Chinese mirrors. There is a strong possibility that this mirror from the Manai burial mound was produced in China and presented to the ruler of the Yamatai Kingdom of Japan by the ruler of the Chinese Dynasty. If this is true, this mirror provides primary evidence in helping solve questions about the Yamatai Kingdom.

Excavated from the Manai burial mound (early 4th c. large keyhole-shaped tomb) in Tondabayashi City. There are two types of bronze mirrors with triangle design borders of deities and animals: those made in China and those made in Japan by imitating the Chinese mirrors. There is a strong possibility that this mirror from the Manai burial mound was produced in China and presented to the ruler of the Yamatai Kingdom of Japan by the ruler of the Chinese Dynasty. If this is true, this mirror provides primary evidence in helping solve questions about the Yamatai Kingdom.

Bronze mirror excavated from Tsubaiotsukayama, Yamashiro Burial Mound

Bronze mirror excavated from Tsubaiotsukayama, Yamashiro Burial Mound

What do the designs mean?

According to one view (Schuyler Camman), the designs were symbols of the heavens or the cosmological world the Chinese believed in.

The V shapes: The Vs framed the inner square, and that the central square is thought to represent China as the ‘Middle Kingdom, as well as the ancient Chinese idea that heaven was round and earth was square. This illustrated the Chinese idea of the five directions – North, South, West, East and Center. ’ The area in between the central square and the circle represented the ‘Four Seas.’ During the Han Dynasty the ‘Four Seas’ represented territories outside China.  The nine nipples in the central square likely represented the ‘nine regions of the earth as discussed by Cammann as having come from the Shiji.

The Ts: These reflected the ‘Four Gates of the Middle Kingdom’ idea present in Chinese literature, or possibly the four inner gates of the Han place of sacrifice, or the gates of the imperial tombs built during the Han period.

The Ls: These are thought to have symbolized the marshes and swamps beyond the ‘Four Seas,’ at the ends of the earth. The Ls seem to bend possibly to achieve a rotating effect which symbolized the four seasons, or the cardinal directions.

(The eight nipples outside of the central square are thought to be representations of the Eight Pillars, mountains that held up the canopy of heaven. The area between the inner round border and the outer rim of the mirror was often filled with swirls that represented the clouds in heaven.)

Mirror with Sea Creatures and Grape Vines, Tang Dynasty (Kyoto National Museum)

Mirror with Sea Creatures and Grape Vines, Tang Dynasty (Kyoto National Museum)

Origin of Japanese mirrors

It was supposed for a long time that all of the Yayoi and Kofun Japanese bronze mirrors came from Korea, but the position changed after metal analysis studies showed that the metals of most mirrors were of Chinese provenance. It is now the consensus view that only the first mirrors were Korean, thereafter the majority of Chinese mirrors were procured from the Han Chinese and then copied. The Wei mirrors found at the end of Yayoi were either Chinese- or Japanese-produced (some controversy here).

According to scholars, 2,500 out of the 3,500 bronze mirrors found in Japan were made locally in Japan. The majority of Yayoi period mirrors were imported from China, one quarter were locally made in Japan.

According to an earlier position, it was thought that during the Kofun period, three quarters of the mirrors were locally made, and were close copies of Chinese mirrors in terms of their chemical composition as well as techniques and motifs. A few local compositions and designs did however emerge.

It has also been pointed out that Korean and Chinese mirrors have different designs – Chinese motifs of dragons and human figures were common while Korean ones tended towards geometric designs like triangle shaped patterns on the rims (see Bronze mirror reflects the height of technology. Korean mirrors are believed to be derived from the Ordos bronze mirror tradition.

However, in recent in a Korean-Japanese collaborative research effort, conducted between 20o4-2010 entitled “Multilateral Comparative Study on Introduction, Acculturation, and Distribution of Bronze Culture in East Asia,” the group examined bronze products mainly of the Bronze-Three Kingdoms periods, found in the Kyongsang-do region in Korea (Old Gaya confederacy and parts of Silla), as well as those found in the Japanese Archipelago, and conducted lead isotope analysis on them. The results revealed that some types of lead considered to have been produced in South China possibly originated in a mine in Chilgok-gun, located near Daegu City, Kyeongsangbuk-do. In addition, the group found that the bronze products containing these groups of lead first appeared and started to increase around the fourth century, concurrent with the expansion of Silla’s influence into the Daegu region.  In 2008, the group’s research showed results concerning bronze products in Japan again, bringing up the possibility that some raw materials that had been considered to have been produced in China actually originated on the Korean Peninsula. Likewise, while mines in Yamaguchi Prefecture had been considered the first example of mass production in Japan, some bronze considered to originate from this region was found to possibly be from other regions. (Source: National Museum of Japanese History)



An archaeological study of the periodization of the Tang mirror by Xu Diankui

The ‘TLV’ Pattern on Cosmic Mirrors of the Han Dynasty,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 68.3-4 (1948), 159-167. Cammann, Schuyler.

The Decoration of Mirrors of the Han Period: A Chronology. Bulling, Anneliese. Ascona: Artibus Asiae, 1960.

Mirror, Death and Rhetoric: Reading Later Han Chinese Bronze Artefacts. Eugene Yuejin Wang  The Art Bulletin, Vol. 76, No. 3 (Sept. 1994) pp. 511-514 College Art Association

TLV mirror, Wikipedia

“Chinese History and culture reflected by bronze mirrors” China Daily

The world in a mirror.

2000 year old mummies found in China still wearing silk clothing had star map with them!” Daily Republican Dec 19, 1996: Chinese Han dynasty bronze mirror found on 2,000 year old Taklamakan desert mummies

The Yayoi Culture

Bronze mirror reflects the height of technology

Chinese Influence on the Technological Development of Yayoi Period Japan: Problems of Metal Casting and the Production of Bronze Mirrors” by Sergey Lapteff pp. 470 from  “Historical perspectives on East Asian science, technology and medicine” by Alan Kam-leung Chan,Gregory K. Clancey, Hui-Chieh Loy

The art of Scythians: the interpenetration of cultures at the edge of the Hellenic World by Esther Jacobson, E.J. Brill

Pre-Mauryan Rattle-Mirrors with Artistic Designs from Burial Mounds of the Altai Region in the Light of Sanskrit Sources (pdf) by Yaroslav V. Vassilkov (html version)

International Seminar on Ordos Bronze held in Ordos (Chinese Archaeology, Institute of Archeology Chinese Academy of Social Sciences) The Ordos culture refers to groups of nomadic peoples that inhabited the southern Mongolian Plateau as early as the Shang Dynasty. Though they lived along the western and northern perimenters of the main Han Dynasty settlements, they retained a distinctive culture more aligned with the Scythian peoples of the Steppes than their Chinese neighbors. They are known primarily through their metalwork. The Ordos animal style refers to the depictions on many of the belt plaques, horse gear, and weapons of scenes of animlas in combat. Such themes are linked to the ancient Near Eastern tradion. During the Han Dynasty, the Chinese formulated peace treaties with the Xiongnu peoples who were the dominant force of the Ordos region at this time. Xiongu tombs have been excavated in Mongolia that contained Chinese luxury goods such as silk and bronze mirrors next to their own works.

The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan (pps 74 – 76 explain the motif derivations and symbolic meaning of the bronze mirrors of the Han Dynasty)

The World of the Huns: Studies in their History and Culture Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen (pps. 338 – 341)

Notes: Two Chinese mirrors of the Han period in Kurgan E26 burial 19 on the Torgun River in the Lower Volga Region were found – one resembling the mirrors found in Japanese Kofun period burials.) the other a fragment of a “four nipples” mirror from Berezhnovka II kurgan 3.

Han mirrors have also been found at Noin Ula (probably gifts from Chinese emperors and evidence of Xiongnu princes’ trade relations with China), Il Mova Pad, Wu-huan cemetery in Lo-Shan-hsiang in Manchuria, in the Minusinks area, 5 mirrors are TLV mirrors and one i-t’i tzu (quaint script type), in the Kenkol cemetery of the Talas Valley, one chang i tzu sun and one “hundred nipples” mirror were found. Mirrors from Fergana were  chang i tzu sun mirrors. The westernmost Han mirror is found in the Kuban region in the Caucasus.

From Recovering Mongolia’s Past Recent excavations of Xiongnu burials have turned up more fragments of bronze mirrors. Mongolia was the heartland of the Xiongnu and the later empires of the Turks and early Uighurs (6th–9th centuries). All of these extended their power far to the west and played a significant role in the history of northern China. Conventional histories of the Silk Road date the beginning of that long international route of exchange to the intereaction between the Han Dynasty and the Xiongnu. Excavate almost any Xiongnu elite grave in Mongolia [Figs. 2] or Buriatia today and you find inevitably Chinese bronze mirrors among other Chinese items such as the one below:

Fig. 2. Ritually broken fragments of a Chinese Han Dynasty bronze mirror excavated in a Xiongnu grave. (© 2005 Daniel C. Waugh)
Fig. 2. Ritually broken fragments of a Chinese Han Dynasty bronze mirror excavated in a Xiongnu grave. (Source and © 2005 Daniel C. Waugh)

To find out more about the Xiongnu period excavations and Xiongnu burial artefacts, read the articles in The Silk Road 4/1 (2006) and 5/2 (2008), available on-line at the Silkroad Foundation website.

http://www.silkroadfoundation.org/toc/newsletter.html and from the website, ‘Archaeology and Landscape in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia’ http://img.uoregon.edu/mongolian/ index.php.

In the Origin of the Xiongnu (Russian Academy of Sciences, archeo.ru) however, Sergey Miniaev makes the following observations that despite the popularity of the “Ordos hypothesis” of the origin of the Xiongnu, the Ordos culture is not the only Scythian zone culture that is responsible for the artefacts found in so-called Xiongnu burials:

” If one turns to Scythian sites in the Far Eastern steppes, one can see that one more zone of the Scythian world existed in the region of old south and south-west Manchuria. The burials of the region (in Nan-chan-gen, Zhou-tzia-di, Tzun-du-chan and some burials deep in the upper stratum of the Xiaziadian settlement) have some common characteristics: the position of the dead was predominantly extended supine; a wooden coffin was inside the rectangular pit, the short walls of which were inserted into the long ones; the coffin was covered with stone slabs and the walls of the pit were lined with similar slabs. Like “rank-and-file” Xiongnu (Hsiungnu) burials, those graves had bronze buttons, zoomorphic plaques, small bells and imitation cowrie shells inside. Some types of the Xiongnu (Hsiungnu) grave goods, especially the shifted three-bladed arrows and the flat shear-arrows made of iron, can be regarded as a result of the development of similar bronze arrows from the above-mentioned Scythian burials. It is noteworthy that the shape and weight of those arrows bespeak the use of a big bow, apparently, approaching the Xiongnu (Hsiungnu) bow in size.

To sum up, it is precisely the Scythian-time burials of the south and south-west Manchuria, among all the sites of the Scythian period known at present in the east of the steppe zone, that manifest to the fullest extent the set of “proto-Xiongnu (Hsiungnu)” characteristics. Thus is possible to outline the probable region of the early stages of Xiongnu (Hsiungnu) history and to pin-point the sites, the detailed analysis of which is of prime importance in resolving the problem of the origin of Xiongnu (Hsiungnu).”

One response to “Origin and types of bronze mirrors in East Asia

  1. did they make one of hard material as ivory of some sort w people being pulled by people n a carriage w people following ,hand carved ?w a thin layer of wood on opposite side ,it now has worm holes .10×10 inches maybe round w knob n middle .i have one w some writing like a signature .

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