Bronze Mirrors Unearthed in China Still Reflect After 2,000 Years
More than 80 exquisite bronze mirrors in excellent condition have been discovered in a large Han Dynasty tomb in China, after being hidden underground for over two millennia. Not only do some of them still have their original reflective quality, but experts are learning from the 2,000-year-old inscriptions and symbols that adorn them.
Bronze Mirror Image of the Mighty Han Dynasty
Ruling for just over 400 years, between 202 BC and 220 AD, the Han Dynasty was the second of the imperial dynasties in ancient Chinese history. Their rule is considered transformative in Chinese history, being dubbed the “Golden Age” of China. Now, in an article published in the Heritage Science Journal, Jiafang Lian and Quentin Parker from the University of Hong Kong write about the discovery of 80 exquisite bronze mirrors, discovered on-site in a large-scale ancient tomb in Western China.
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The expedition was carried out by archaeologists from the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology at a large cemetery in Dabaozi Village, Xianyang City, Shaanxi Province. To their surprise and amazement, after a bit of cleaning most of these mirrors still display reflectivity, even after 2,000 years. Not only that, but the wiping off of the dirt revealed symbols and ancient Chinese scriptures.
The back surface of the bronze mirrors shoes the detail of the decoration, which included symbols and ancient Chinese scriptures. (Jiafang Liang & Quentin Parker / Heritage Science)
Bronze Mirrors and Other Artifacts Unearthed at Gaozhuang
The mirrors varied in length – between 7 centimeters and 22 centimeters (3 to 8 inches respectively), and were generally buried near the head or around the upper body within the tombs. What was instantly clear from the graveyard at Gaozhuang Township – made up of 400 separate tombs – was that this was a burial ground for the Han elite.
This hypothesis was confirmed with the discovery of the artifacts unearthed within the tombs, including fine works of pottery, jade, iron and bronze that were buried with the bodies. Some of the mirrors show four Chinese characters “ jia chang fu gi” which translated into “home of prosperity”, leaving no doubts about the class of those who had been buried.
The Han Dynasty, like several other dynasties across ancient, medieval and modern history, ruled with an emperor at the pinnacle of Han society. The emperor presided over their government, but shared power with the nobility and appointed ministers, who formed the gentry and scholarly class. It is this class of people whose graves were uncovered at Gaozhuang.
One of the archaeologists from the dig told the Global Times that “the newly discovered mirrors are great references for archaeologists to further study the material culture of the early and middle periods of the Western Han Dynasty. They are also excellent examples of the aesthetic taste of ancient Chinese and possess both historical and artistic values.”
The mirrors varied in length – between 7 centimeters and 22 centimeters (3 to 8 inches). (China News Service / Zhang Yuan)
The Chinese and Their Mirrors: Xuan Xi
Lian and Parker write, rather poignantly, that the “modern scholar Liang thought the ancient Chinese got the inspiration of creating a reflective surface to see the world from looking at still water in a lake or pond.” This, in its essence, provides the spiritual and philosophical lens through which mirrors were theorized. The shimmering glow was obtained from an ancient Chinese method of rubbing quicksilver (tin and mercury paste) and polishing it with white felt – a process called xuan xi.
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“The earliest recognizable Chinese bronze mirror was unearthed in Gansu Province and has been dated to the Neolithic period’s Qijia culture (2200 BC – 1600 BC)”, write Lian and Parker of the first discovery from the Bronze Age culture. China’s next 4,000 years have three distinct and most important phases of mirror history: the Warring States (475 to 221 BC), the Han (202 BC to 220 AD) and the Tang (618 to 907 AD).
These three periods witnessed a gradual refinement of the bronze technique, and diverse artistic styles, as well as delicate and intricate decorations, during the Warring period. During the Han, though the quality of designs dipped, the quantities of production began at a mass scale – mirrors remain one of the most significant archaeological remains from this period. During the Tang, this technique and design became even more advanced and sophisticated as lacquer and mother of pearl included in the finish. Even then, the two scholars argue, the design quality could not surpass that of the Warring period.
Top image: Bronze mirrors Source: China News Service / Zhang Yuan
By Sahir Pandey