The small bronze mirror is thin, light in weight and cast in the center with a hemispherical knob pierced for stringing, the knob centered on a flat-relief quatrefoil comprised of four trefoils, each with a circular depression in its center and with attenuated points flanked by raised dots in the spaces between the points. The band surrounding this central design is cast with eight arcs containing whorl motifs, the arcs flanked by forms that appear like the stacked umbrellas of the finial surmounting the Indian Buddhist stupa, these elements radiating from the raised line encircling the central design, all enclosed by a repeat notch border, the outermost circle left plain, with the wide rim slightly raised, its surface exhibiting a beautiful “water patina” while the reverse resembles gleaming black marble shot with light green.
This small mirror is a rare variation within the densely populated world of extant Han mirrors. A mirror excavated in Loyang, for example, is designed with the quatrefoil center and eight linked arcs, with the four characters of an auspicious phrase incorporated into the design, but with no further decoration (fig. 1). A mirror in the Cleveland Museum of Art is designed with all of those features along with the addition of two concentric bands around the central design, one similar to the hatch-marked band of the present (fig. 2). In place of the “pagoda” motifs on the present mirror are mound or stupa shapes with triple finials alternating with circles in the spaces between the arcs. The separation of the arcs from one another as in the decoration of the present mirror is very similar to the décor on another group of mirrors, whose overall program is otherwise quite distinct from the present. A number of these are completed with the arcs filled with whorls or clouds, however, similar to the present (figs. 3-4).
Ju-hsi Chou, in his Carter collection catalogue, suggests that this more complex type of mirror took as its point of departure those mirrors with linked arcs, then separated the arcs and added squares between them.” The present mirror appears transitional between the two types that Chou described. Yet a further variation in design is present on another excavated mirror on which the cloud scrolls were removed altogether from the arcs (fig. 5). While certain standard types of Han mirrors fall easily into groups, the more idiosyncratic mirrors, like that illustrated in figure 5 and the present mirror, suggest creativity in the midst of reproducible norms.
The label written by a former Japanese owner on the present mirror’s wooden box, and further labels associated with the mirror, refer to it as an “Eight Cloud” mirror, and we have followed that nomenclature here. The eight half circles in the second register, filled each with a similar arrangement of whorl circles, have lent themselves to that special appellation. Related mirrors, designed with the characteristic eight “clouds” but combined with multiple bosses, dots, or “nipples” are sometimes referred to as yunxing or “cloud and nebulae” mirrors. Somehow, despite the stark and stringent geometric nature of the designs, the absolute antithesis of cloud-nature— amorphous, transient, obscure, and shapeless—the terminology embraces the notion that the heavens are reflected in these mirrors. From the Shang dynasty onward mirrors occupied a magical realm in Chinese society and its psyche, giving rise to a plethora of types with ornament whose meanings are sometimes comprehensible and at other time elude us, but which always give us pause to reflect.
1. See cat. 44 for more on this type of mirror.
2. See Ju-hsi Chou, Circles of Reflection: The Carter Collection of Chinese Bronze Mirrors, Cleveland, 2000, p. 56.
Fig. 1: Bronze mirror, with eight undecorated linked arcs, quatrefoil and four characters, Eastern Han dynasty, 1st-2nd century A.D., after Luoyang chutu tongjing, Beijing, 1988, no. 42.
Fig. 2: Bronze mirror with eight undecorated linked arcs, quatrefoil around knob, notching, concentric circles, Eastern Han dynasty, 1st century A.D., after Ju-hsi Chou,Circles of Reflection: The Carter Collection of Chinese Bronze Mirrors, Cleveland, 2000, no. 17.
Fig. 3: Bronze mirror with multiple detached arcs and cloud motifs, Eastern Han dynasty, 1st-2nd century A.D., Shanghai Museum, after Ancient Bronze Mirrors from the Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 2005, no. 61, p. 196.
Fig. 4: Detail of fig. 3.
Fig. 5: Bronze mirror, with linked multiple arcs and detached cloud motifs, Eastern Han dynasty, 1st-2nd century A.D., after Luoyang qutu tongjing, Beijing, 1988, no. 46.