In ancient China, from at least the Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1100 B.C.), mirrors served both as functional articles of daily life and as sacred objects possessing powers of their own. By the fourth century B.C., the custom had developed of placing mirrors in tombs. The Chinese believed that mirrors had the ability not only to reflect the truth, and thus ward off evil demons who could not bear to look upon themselves, but also to radiate light and illuminate the tomb for eternity.
The geometric motifs and naturalistic forms used to decorate this mirror have symbolic meaning. The four prominent, raised bosses that divide the field into four parts refer to the four cardinal directions and quadrants of the universe. Seven real and fantastic animals follow each other around the band. The group includes three of the traditional “spirit animals” of the four directions: the Green Dragon of the East; the White Tiger of the West; and the Red Bird of the South. The Black Tortoise of the North is here replaced by a pair of rodentlike quadrupeds. The two remaining animals cannot be identified. The eighth figure is a creeping human with fringes on his arms and legs, possibly one of the Taoist immortal “feathered men.” Tiny bosses scattered seemingly at random over the surface represent stars grouped as constellations.
(London Gallery, Ltd., Tokyo);
purchased by Kimbell Art Foundation, Fort Worth, 1984.