Chinese Bronze Mirror E69912 Click to enlarge image
This bronze mirror, although typical of the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), is actually younger - probably a 13th or 14th century replica. Diameter: 18cm. Image: Stan Florek
© Australian Museum

Mirrors of this style are called TLV mirrors as they have symbols resembling the letters T, L and V included in the design. Scholars still debate what the TLV symbols signify. Some believe that they represent ideas from Chinese cosmology. Others think that these mirrors may also show the liubo board-game on the reverse side. The mirrors of this style and liubo game were very popular in the time of the Han Dynasty.

The back of TLV mirrors has a distinctive design that may reflect cosmological concepts as proposed by American academic Schuyler Camman.

The prominent design element is a sizable square placed in the middle of the circular form. This square and its placement, with the Vs dividing the periphery of the circle into four sections, may indicate the Chinese idea of five directions – North, South, West, East and Centre. The square within the circle may also indicate heaven (circle) and earth (square).

The areas between the square and the circle may indicate ‘Four Seas’ while the Ls also placed in these areas could symbolise the ‘Four Seasons’. The bending of the Ls could imply movements – the changing of the seasons.

The square may also represent China as the Middle Kingdom while areas between the square and the circle’s edge may signify ‘Four Seas’ as a geographical concept of seas and territories beyond China. The Ts may represent the four gates of the Middle Kingdom – often alluded to in the Chinese literature of that time. The square could apply to architecture where it symbolises the imperial palace (and tomb) and the Ts imply four gates.

The eight nipples outside of the central square could represent the Eight Pillars - mountains that held up the canopy of heaven. The narrow area in the outer rim of the mirror is often filled with swirls that may symbolise clouds in the sky.

Researched by Libai Li