The Code of the Universe on an Ancient Chinese Bronze Mirror

The front of the bronze Han mirror.

In ancient China, mirrors, which are normally made of bronze, were often viewed as more than just instruments for reflection; they were also artworks, and sometimes sacred objects with supernatural dispositions, and for that, they often used as sacrifice articles to detect other worlds.

The earliest mirrors in China were said to be made of special tile, which is believed to be the reason that the Chinese character for Mirror initially was 鉴. Since the Shang Dynasty (1600BC-1100BC), bronze mirrors appeared, thus the character gained a metal radical and transformed into 镜.

The bronze mirrors produced in the West Han dynasty (220BC – 24AD) possess a great capacity to transmit natural light, enabling the text or images on the back of a mirror to be reflected onto a white wall – a technology was widely used in the Tang era (618 – 907), but later lost when China declined and eventually went backward during the last dynasty Qing (1644 – 1911).

So far, the majority of the excavated mirrors were the products of the Han Dynasty (202BC–220AD). They are often decorated with gems and inscriptions and their names ranging from Sun-Moon Mirror (日月镜), Twelve Zodiac Mirror (十二生辰镜), Supreme Power Mirror (尚方御镜) to Blessing Mirror (辟邪镜).

Among the Han mirrors, none is more mysterious than the one called Four-Deities Ruling Mirrors (四神规矩镜 ). It is believed that the patterns on the mirror illustrate the structural code of the universe based on the Daoist view.

The round button at the centre of the mirror represents the Taichi core, the heart of the cosmos. The square surrounding the button stands for the earth that supports the people, and the circle further surrounding the square symbolises the heaven that governs the world.

The figures that looked like English letters indicate the earth formation and human responses to the environment.

“V” corresponds to deep falls on earth that is clearly the oceans. The V also implies a compass, which the Chinese began to use as early as in the Shang dynasty (1600BC – 1100BC).

“T” stands for pillars that are installed in four directions and hold up the sky. The T also illustrates an angle square that became a popular tool in construction work long before the appearance of the compass.

Then it is “L” which indicates a gate with a bolt safeguarding the world.

The back of the bronze Han mirror

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