Old Version

A Reflection of History

Decorated bronze mirrors from the Tang Dynasty bore witness to the rise and fall of trade and governance, as well as ups and downs of the Silk Road

By Lü Weitao , Zhang Jin Updated Sept.1

This luodian Mirror made in the Tang Dynasty is housed in the National Museum of China in Beijing. It is one of the best examples of its kind in China

Junks sail near Canton (now Guangzhou, Guangdong Province), 1880

Famed Chinese Emperor Taizong, second emperor of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) who laid the foundations of the dynasty, has a meaningful statement about the success of governance, recorded in the Old Book of Tang, a history of the dynasty compiled in 945 after it had fallen. “When one uses a bronze mirror, one can adjust the attire. When one uses history as a mirror, one comprehends the rise and fall of a nation. When one uses a person as a mirror, a remonstrator, one sees the success and missteps.”  

Bronze mirrors have a special political, social and cultural implication in the long river of Chinese history. Bronze mirrors were known as jian or zhaozi in ancient times. Chinese ancestors first simply used pools of water, later filling pottery utensils with water to reflect their image. The smooth surface of bronze tools inspired the invention of polished bronze mirrors as a reflective device.  

In the 1970s, three bronze mirrors were discovered one after another at the Qijia Cultural Site in the northwestern province of Gansu. Qijia was one of the earliest Chinese bronze cultures, and the discovery pushed back the casting and use of bronze mirrors to around 2000 BCE, roughly the same time as the earliest use of bronze mirrors in the world.  

Over time, the casting techniques were refined. One type of bronze mirror is notable for its special craftsmanship and luxurious ornamentation – the luodian mirror.  

Luo is the general term for shellfish, while dian means inlaying ornaments in the surface of something. When combined, luodian refers to the process of cutting shells into a flat plate, crafting patterns and inlaying them into the surface of an object. Archaeological discoveries show that the luodian process appeared as early as the Shang and Zhou dynasties (1600-256 BCE). 

Exquisite Design 
One of the best examples of a luodian mirror dates from the Tang Dynasty, today housed in the National Museum of China in Beijing. It is the most exquisite of its kind and a first-class national cultural relic. The round Tang mirror is 23.9 centimeters in diameter, with a round knob in the center of the non-reflective side and a slightly curved rim. The reverse is inlaid with an intricate and ornate design of birds, flowers, figures and everyday objects. It is thought the design connotes the literati’s leisurely interests and the tranquility of the scenery.  

On the non-reflective side, two hermits sit to the left and right of the round knob – the one on the left plays the ruan, a traditional Chinese stringed musical instrument, and the other holds a wine cup. With a tripod and a pot in front, the two are drinking and listening to music. A maid stands behind them, holding a box with both hands. White cranes dance to the music, while birds pause beside a pond to listen. Above the knob is a tree with thick branches and luxuriant flowers and leaves. A cat nestles under the tree, with parrots flapping their wings and tails on each side.  

A rare treasure among mirrors of the Tang Dynasty, this mirror features gorgeous ornaments made with exquisite materials. Research reveals how it reflects the cultural inclusiveness of the Tang Dynasty – the iridescent shells come from the South China Sea, the inlaid stamens in the flowers are made of amber from Yunnan Province in southwestern China, and the background is covered with blue lazurite powder from West Asia. 

Mysterious Owner 
In 1955, more than 1,000 ancient tombs were found at a construction site on the west bank of the Jianhe River in the western suburbs of Luoyang, Henan Province. China was in the middle of the First Five-Year Plan (1953-1957) which promoted industrialization. Around Luoyang, factories were springing up, making tractors, ball bearings and machine tools, as well as new power plants and other large-scale projects. Archaeologists were brought in to clear the tombs to make way for construction. The Tang bronze mirror was discovered in one tomb, dated to 759, the second year of the reign of the Tang Emperor Suzong.  

Since this tomb was excavated and robbed, it is difficult to identify the owner of the tomb due to the lack of other unearthed evidence. But as luodian mirrors are made of expensive materials and require complicated techniques, they were high-end luxury goods monopolized by the imperial family even in the most flourishing period of the Tang Dynasty. The owner of this bronze mirror must have been important, most likely a member of the imperial family or a high-ranking court official. However, it is obviously unusual, as such people were mostly buried at the Mount Mangshan burial complex to the north of Luoyang, while this bronze mirror was unearthed in a low-level tomb in the western suburbs of Luoyang.  

In 759, the Tang Dynasty was in the midst of the An Lushan Rebellion, an eight-year period of bloody war and turmoil most historians consider the turning point in the Tang Dynasty’s fortunes. The owner of this bronze mirror is likely to have died in the war but could not be buried at Mount Mangshan. The tomb’s occupant was likely hastily interred outside the city, despite their noble status. Fortunately, the owner had this bronze mirror buried beside them, so today we know it represents their status and position in the world, and also the belief of continuing their life of luxury in another world.  

Luodian bronze mirrors represent the pinnacle of the art of Chinese bronze mirrors. This is largely because of Emperor Taizong’s (599- 649) “historiographical thinking” – exemplified by his famous quote about needing a mirror to correct one’s appearance, understand the rise and fall of a state, and distinguish right from wrong.  

With political significance attached, requirements for the quality and craftsmanship of mirror-making rose to an unprecedented level. With the blessing of the prosperity of the Tang Dynasty and overseas trade, a fine product such as this luodian mirror could finally be created.  

At least 18 luodian mirrors from the Tang Dynasty have been discovered, including 11 that are preserved in museums or by collectors overseas. Seven others were unearthed in tombs around Luoyang and the Tang capital of Chang’an, now Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, during the reigns of Xuanzong and Dezong.  

Among the 11 luodian mirrors preserved overseas, 10 are in Japan, and one sunflower-shaped flower-and-bird mirror is in the British Museum in London. The nine luodian mirrors in the collection of Shoso-in, Todaiji Temple in Nara, Japan, were brought from China by the kentoshi (ambassadors dispatched to the Tang Dynasty) and treasured by Japanese emperors of all dynasties. These mirrors are round or sunflower shaped, large and decorated mainly with patterns of flowers and birds. 

Witness to the Silk Road 
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.