Mirror with game board design and animals of the four directions

This ancient bronze mirror features elaborate designs representing immortality and the cosmos.

Mirror with game board design and animals of the four directions, 1st–2nd century C.E. (Han dynasty, China), bronze with black patina, 16.8 cm diameter (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Speakers: Dr. Cortney Chaffin and Dr. Beth Harris

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the galleries devoted to the art of ancient China. We’re looking at a bronze object that is described as a mirror with a game board design. It’s a fascinating, really complicated object.

Dr. Cortney Chaffin: [0:21] The one side of the mirror is decorated with the game board design, with a raised boss at the very center through which a string could be threaded so that the mirror could be held. The opposite side of the mirror would have been polished to a sheen to be reflective.

Dr. Harris: [0:41] There are many examples of these kinds of mirrors here in the galleries at the Met. This one in particular is what’s called a TLV mirror.

Dr. Chaffin: [0:50] The TLV mirror was very popular during the Han dynasty as well as previous periods, such as the Warring States period of the Eastern Zhou dynasty.

Dr. Harris: [1:03] Art historians today call them TLV mirrors because we recognize this repeated motif of T, L, and V shapes.

Dr. Chaffin: [1:12] The Ls are located where the cardinal directions — north, south, east, west — are located, and the Vs are at the corners where we would have northeast, northwest, southeast, southwest.

Dr. Harris: [1:27] So we’re already getting a sense that these forms have symbolic meaning.

Dr. Chaffin: [1:32] The game board is called liu bo, and it is a game that dates as far back as the Warring States period.

[1:41] The game board is associated with immortality because the immortals are often represented playing this divinatory game. On this mirror, we even see a depiction of an immortal. Immortals in Han dynasty art are often represented with big or pointed ears and having wings or feathers protruding out of their arms.

Dr. Harris: [2:08] And we know that during this period in the Han dynasty, this was a major concern. How could one ensure life continuing after death? We see that in so many works during this period that were made for the tomb. We can think of the elaborate objects that Lady Dai had in her tomb, for example.

Dr. Chaffin: [2:28] Around the inner perimeter of the square, there are Chinese characters that represent the earthly branches and ancient ordering system to order chronological time. The 12 earthly branches are associated with the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac — the dragon, the rabbit, the rat, the ox, the pig, and so on.

Dr. Harris: [2:54] So what we’ve got coming together is a sense of the ordering of the cosmos, both in time and in space.

Dr. Chaffin: [3:03] The TLV mirror has a cosmological function. It’s associated with immortality, but because it’s a mirror, it also reflects light.

Dr. Harris: [3:14] That could be useful if you were spending your eternal life in the darkness of a tomb.

Dr. Chaffin: [3:20] Right, the mirror can be seen to illuminate the tomb. The TLV mirror also is associated with heaven and earth. The square at the very center is associated with earth, while the round shape of the mirror is associated with heaven.

Dr. Harris: [3:36] If we look really closely, we can make out animals here as well.

Dr. Chaffin: [3:41] The spaces around the TLV pattern are filled with strange creatures that are reminiscent of the animals of the cardinal directions — the dragon, the phoenix, the tiger, and the black warrior, which is a turtle entwined with a snake. These animals have a protective function.

[4:07] Having an object like this might help to ease the anxieties that the living had for their deceased ancestor and their longevity in the afterlife.

[4:20] [music]

This mirror at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

K. E. Brashier, “Longevity like Metal and Stone: The Role of the Mirror in Han Burials,” T’oung Pao, volume 81, number 4/5 (1995), pp. 201–29.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Cortney E. Chaffin and Dr. Beth Harris, "Mirror with game board design and animals of the four directions," in Smarthistory, July 13, 2023, accessed July 19, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/mirror-with-game-board-design-and-animals-of-the-four-directions/.