A reflection of China's ancient past at the Huntington

Huntington exhibit uncovers history of intricate mirrors, their makers and owners.

December 30, 2011|By Lynne Heffley
  • Warring mirror with riders and figures in Landscape. (Photograph by Bruce M. White)
Warring mirror with riders and figures in Landscape.…

A tiny leopard frozen in mid-leap. A stalking hunter. Twining leaves, coiled dragons, interlaced serpents, swooping birds and “swirling cloud scrolls” that represent “the vital energy, or qi, of everything in the universe”:

These are some of the stunning designs to be found in “Ancient Chinese Bronze Mirrors From the Lloyd Cotsen Collection,” a major exhibition at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

Running through May 14 and organized by Huntington Curator June Li, the first-time exhibition features 87 bronze mirrors — diminutive treasures that span 3,000 years of ancient Chinese history, from the Qijia Culture (2100-1700 BC) to the Jin Dynasty of the 12th and 13th century.

These cast bronze mirrors with once-glossy polished faces are not on display merely as objects of cosmetic use and self-reflection. In fact, the star attractions are the backs of the mirrors. Even green or blue with the patina of age, the intricately decorated surfaces are alive with inscriptions, abstract and symbolic designs, mythical beings, deities, flora and fauna.


Some are lacquered and painted, others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl, glass and precious stones. Some are gilded, silvered or crafted with hammered gold.

Their use and décor can be interpreted as sacred, magical and protective as well as pragmatic. The evolution of their designs and metallurgy offers scholars a key to historical, cultural and technological changes that took place in ancient China over thousands of years.

The trade routes of the Silk Road, for instance, brought Western influences to China’s indigenous motifs and its highly developed bronze technology. Foreigners, recognizable by their clothing and facial features, began to figure into the designs. Grapevines became a popular motif.

The delicately crafted mirrors — mostly circular in shape, some square, others elaborately lobed — were the province of the wealthy, their value underscored by the fact that they were presented as diplomatic gifts and entombed with their owners.

“Bronze was a very valuable commodity,” said Huntington Curatorial Assistant Michelle Bailey. “All the mirrors you see in the exhibition would have been quite expensive. Even the smallest were owned by the elites in early China.”

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