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The Code of Universe in an Ancient Bronze Mirror 

6 November 2007

The front of the bronze Han mirror

In ancient China, mirrors, normally made of bronze (铜镜), were often viewed as more than just instruments for reflection; they were also artworks, and sometimes sacred objects with supernatural disposition, and for that they often used as scarified articles to help the dead reflecting the yin world.

The earliest mirrors in China were said to be made of special tile, and which is believed to be the reason that the Chinese character for mirror initially was 鉴. Since Shang Dynasty (1600BC-1100BC), bronze mirrors appeared, and thus the character gained a metal radical and transformed into 镜.

The bronze mirrors produced in the Western Han dynasty (220BC - 24AD) possess a great capacity of transmitting light, enabling the text or images on the back of a mirror to be reflected onto a white wall - a technology was widely used in the Tang era (618 - 907), but later lost when China declined and eventually went backward during the last dynasty Qing (1644 - 1911).

So far, the majority of the unearthed mirrors were the products of the Han Dynasty, and are often decorated with gems and inscriptions with names from Sun-Moon Mirror (日月镜), Zodiac Mirror (十二生辰镜), Supreme Power Mirror (尚方御镜) to Blessing Mirror (辟邪镜).

Among the Han mirrors, none is more mysterious than the one called Four-Deities Ruler Mirrors (四神规矩镜 ) that lately went on public display on a relic exhibition show in Shandong province. It is believed that the patterns on the mirror illustrates the structural code of the universe (宇宙模式) based on the Daoist view.

The round button at the centre of the mirror represents the Taichi core, the heart of the cosmos and everything in the universe. The square surrounded the button stands for the earth that support the people, and the circle further surrounded the square symbolises the heaven that governs the world.

The figures that looked like English letters indicate the earth formation and the human responses to the world that ancient Chinese people lived in: “V” corresponds to deep falls on earth that is clearly the oceans, and the V also implies compass, which Chinese began to use as early as during the Shang dynasty (1600BC - 1100BC); “T” stands for a pillar that is installed in four directions holding up the sky, and the T also illustrates an angle square that became a popular tool in construction work even long before the appearance of compass; then it is “L” that indicates a gate with a bolt safeguarding the world.

The back of the bronze Han mirror

Among these structural elements, there are 22 dots scattered between the heaven and earth, looked as though directly derived from the Taichi core. The twelve situated in the square signify 12 Earthly Branches, commonly known as 12 zodiacs, and the dots outside the earthly confinement are eight trigrams, representing the key points in the time and space, while the arcs on the circumference of the back are like rolling waves symbolising the never-ending life cycle and cosmic sequence.

(Reference: 揭秘汉代神秘铜镜 by 赵晓峰阮浩)

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