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Bronze Shenshou Mirror

Diameter: 14.0 cm. (5 1/2 in.) 徑 14.0 厘米

Late Eastern Han dynasty 東漢晚期
3rd century A.D.

The back of the circular mirror has a large, dome-shaped, undecorated knob in the center bordered by a necklace of small raised bosses, a main zone with a pictorial narrative in high relief depicting human figures and fantastic creatures surrounded by a band of twelve seal-like squares, each with a four-character phrase in seal script, alternating with whorl-decorated half circles (det. a). The squares and half circles are raised on a ground of granulated design embedding circlets with intaglio masks between the half-circles and squares. The entire area is enclosed by a saw-tooth-patterned wall and surrounded by a narrow band depicting a procession of additional spirits and beasts in low relief, and in the outermost border is a cloud-band formed with repeated curling scroll segments. The main ground appears to seethe with bodies but is well-organized around three main figures in each of three quadrants of the mirror and a figural group in the fourth, all oriented with their heads toward the center. The main figures are seated on supports that look like fanciful mushroom caps or leaves curling from stems, one figure flanked by two large feline creatures, one of which holds a branch in its mouth (det. b), the figure in the opposite quadrant flanked by a feline and snake-like creature (det. c), the third figure attended by a smaller standing figure and with a fantastic animal rearing its head and displaying its curled tail (det. d), and the group composition consisting of a central figure seated at a lute with two companions, one on each side, listening in rapt attention (det. e). The design is immensely varied in depth allowing dragon-like creatures biting down on long tablets to materialize out of the background. The figures are well detailed and the background filled with striations encompassing cup-like depressions. The procession in the narrow border inside the cloud-band consists of feline creatures and diaphanous sprites, of fantastic birds and winged quadrupeds, with a carriage drawn by six fiery dragons (det. f) racing along at breakneck speed, all produced in a lively and lithesome relief style that moves the motifs along as if they were airborne.

The main pictorial area, as in other examples of this type of mirror sometimes called shenshou or “deities and beasts” mirrors (figs. 1-7), is characterized by richness, complexity, and dynamism produced by the style of casting, the intricate and expressive details of the figures and the background flourishes. Dragons curl in and out of view and the humans and deities are presented in three-quarter rather than strictly frontal views. The figures here include Xi Wangmu, the Queen Mother of the West, often shown between two chimeras, and her male counterpart Dong Wanggong, the Lord of the East, shown opposite her on the “eastern” side. The group of figures represents Boya, the lute player of Chinese lore, his mentor, Zhong Ziqi, who swept him off to the land of the immortals for lessons in truly heavenly music, the third figure representing a simple woodcutter who was in fact a great connoisseur of music, and the last single figure, here with a standing attendant, is Huangdi, The Yellow Emperor. The divine nature of the figures is established by the company they keep, the chimeras and dragons, and is reinforced by a border of sprites and carriages drawn by winged creatures, conveying the passengers through the airy heavenly realms.

Inscriptions found on these mirrors can include the names of the figures depicted. The inscriptions usually make reference to the production of the ‘bright” mirror and include at other times more general conveyances of good wishes for the owner of the mirror, evocations of grand sentiments or states of being, and sometimes dedications. While some mirrors have one of the outer bands devoted to an inscription (fig. 1) or single characters in the “seals” (figs. 1 and 4), a great number also have formulaic inscriptions contained in the square “seals,” as on the present mirror While similar or identical phrases are found on a good number of mirrors, there is also some variation, the most significant being when a date is included within one of the “seals,” as, for example, two almost identical mirrors that differ in legends which provide the dates of production, one reading yongkang yuannian, corresponding to A.D. 167 (figs. 5-6), the other reading zhongpingsinian,
corresponding to A.D. 187 (fig. 7).

There are twelve squares each enclosing four characters on the present mirror. Eight of the four-character phrases are legible and are, in fact, identical to eight of the nine four-character inscribed squares on a mirror in the Cleveland Museum of Art. The inscription on the present mirror reads:

I made this bright mirror
By refining three metals.
(two squares illegible)
Boya is playing music.
Multitudinous gods display their forms.
(two squares illegible)
Good fortune and peaceful slumber,
Through the years he will have increased longevity.
His descendants will also prosper.
Even his master will enjoy longevity.[2]

Such mirrors have been discovered in tombs primarily in Zhejiang province but elsewhere as well (fig. 4). Dated examples indicate the mirrors were produced mainly during the 2nd century A.D. or the latter half of Eastern Han period, while a small number date somewhat earlier; the type is known to have continued well into the Three Kingdoms period, although the style then can differ significantly from the earlier examples (fig. 8).

While the mirrors comprise an essentially standard stylistic and iconographic type, they exhibit variations in addition to those mentioned above. The alignment of the figures in the central zone varies between the present type, where the scenes appear to rotate around a central axis, the knob, and thus form a continuous frieze, and a second type which displays the figures horizontally, with each of the ground planes oriented in the same direction and thus producing a top-bottom orientation requiring the mirrors to be viewed from a single viewpoint.

The half discs or circles are usually decorated with cloud-like whorls but they are often left undecorated, similar to the half circle motifs on the Han mirrors discussed in cat. 43. While the minute petal-like decor on the slanted sides of the half discs is not unusual, the tiny taotie masks in raised-stringrelief between the half discs are quite rare. The outer band is either in the form of the abstract clouds seen here (det. g) or geometric designs, such as a diamond-diaper pattern.

The shenshou mirrors do not appear to haveevolved entirely from any one type of mirror but rather share features with both earlier and contemporaneous types. Within this quite extraordinary world of mirrors, however, the shenshou type stands out as being even more extraordinary on a number of levels. The density and depth of the casting alone is enough to take one’s breath away and what appears at first a brawl of creatures is revealed on further consideration to be a carefully thought out program, a place for everyone and everyone in his, her, or its place. Notables from popular religion, from history, and from myth and legend partake in the rousing drama while the magic of their presence is enhanced by the written word, constellations of characters amidst half moons and curling clouds. A carousel, a house of wax, a veritable who’s who in bronze, the mirror is what it is, but it is also a revelation.


1. For an example dated to 105 A.D., see A. Bulling, The Decoration of the Mirrors of the Han Period, Artibus Asiae Suppplementum XX, 1960, fig. N, p. 91.

2. Hiroshi Kawasaki transcribed the inscription on the present mirror and for the most part we followed Ju-hsi Chou’s translation of the Cleveland mirror inscription: Ju-hsi Chou, Circles of Reflection: The Carter Collection of Chinese Bronze Mirrors, Cleveland, 2000, p. 54. The Cleveland mirror is actually a simplified version of the present type with nine rather than twelve inscribed squares and, according to Chou, “the mythic figures and deities disappeared, leaving only two pairs of auspicious animals facing each other.”


Detail a.

Detail b.

Detail c.

Detail d.

Detail e.

Detail f.

Fig. 1: Bronze mirror, Eastern Han dynasty, dated 173 A.D., Goto Art Museum, Tokyo, after Seiji Mizuno, Sekai Bijutsu Zenshu–, vol. 13, Tokyo, 1962, no. 86.

Fig. 2: Bronze mirror, Eastern Han dynasty, 2nd century A.D., after A. Bulling, The Decoration of Mirrors of the Han Period, Artibus Asiae Supplementum XX, 1960, pl. 75.

Fig. 3: Detail of mirror in figure 2.

Fig. 4: Bronze mirror, late Eastern Han dynasty, early 3rd century A.D, excavated in Guangdong, after Guangzhou Hanmu, Beijing, 1981, vol. II, pl. CLXXI:5.

Fig. 5: Bronze mirror, Eastern Han dynasty, dated A.D. 167, Shanghai Museum, after Chen Peifen, Bronze Mirrors in the Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 1987, fig. 54.

Fig. 6: Rubbing of mirror in figure 5.

Fig. 7: Bronze mirror, Eastern Han dynasty, dated A.D. 187, Shanghai Museum, after Zhou Shirong,The Bronze Mirrors, Taipei, 1995, no.193, pp. 94-95 (detail).

Fig. 8: Bronze mirror, Wu kingdom, dated A.D. 262 , National Museum of Chinese History, Beijing, after Exhibition of Chinese History, National Museum of Chinese History, Beijing, 1998, no. 6-1-9.

Detail g.

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