The making of a luodian mirror entails pasting designed patterns carved from a shell on the back of a lacquer mirror. The pearly white of the shell patterns contrasts with the pitch black of the lacquer background, projecting charming brilliance and splendor. Sometimes, fine shards of shell and stones in shades of blue, green, yellow, red, and white are studded between the lacquer background and the shell patterns, sending out a colorful silky glow. Both the two key raw materials – iridescent shell and lazurite – were imported products via the land and maritime Silk Road.
Lazurite is a natural blue pigment. In the Tang Dynasty, stones and gems, including lazurite, green glass, topaz, chrysoprase and turquoise, were among the tributes paid by Central and West Asian countries via the land Silk Road.
The concept of the Silk Road was first proposed by German geographer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877 in his book China. He defined it as a land passage connecting the Chinese capital city Chang’an and Central Asia. Later, German scholar Albert Herrmann extended the end of the land Silk Road to Syria, which had been incorporated into the Roman Empire, and established its basic connotation as an economic and cultural route from ancient China through Central Asia to South and West Asia, even to Europe and North Africa. As an important channel for political, economic and cultural exchanges, the Silk Road made significant contributions to promoting material and spiritual interactions between the East and the West.
The other important raw material of the luodian mirror – iridescent shells – are harvested in the South China Sea. These shellfish are difficult to catch, as they are nocturnal. The shells are called iridescent because after rounds of grinding and polishing, they give off a silvery luster like the bright moon.
Overseas trade was prosperous during the reign of Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty. At that time, Southeast Asian countries became friendly with the dynasty, bringing bustling maritime trade through seaports in the southern Fujian and Guangdong provinces. Merchants from Indian Ocean countries brought precious items such as iridescent shells, clam shells, pearls, corals and tortoise shells via the maritime Silk Road. These treasures were highly sought after by the Tang, some of which were used as decorations on the back of the bronze mirror.
Tang luodian mirrors were first created in the early Tang Dynasty and became popular as the dynasty’s fortunes flourished. But after the An Lushan Rebellion, the Tang Dynasty was severely wounded. With the state in continual decline, it could no longer support that kind of luxury. Constrained with limited resources, the imperial court strictly prohibited the production of luxury goods, including bronze mirrors. After the Five Dynasties (907-960), luodian mirrors were no longer made.
Over the thousands of years of development of bronze mirrors, the luodian mirror was short-lived compared to similar types. However, its craftsmanship, elegance and luxury are uniquely bewitching.
Throughout thousands of years of wear and tear, the lacquer on the back of the mirror has mostly peeled off, but its delicate patterns and gorgeous luster, as well as the powerful spirit of the flourishing Tang Dynasty it exudes, are still powerful.
Take a mirror as a reflection of history. The exquisite luodian mirror not only represents the consummation of Chinese bronze mirrors, but also reflects the strength and power of the early Tang Dynasty, the rise and fall of trade and governance, and integration of cultures along the Silk Road.
Take history as a mirror. International trade and cultural exchange require a stable political environment. Exchange is both the cause and the result of peace: exchange brings peace and peace enables exchange.