Chinese Mirror finds from Mongolia. 1967.

Chinese Mirror finds from Mongolia.

The major part of a Chinese-type bronze TLV mirror was found during the joint Mongolian-Hungarian archaeological expedition of 1963 which was carried out in the cemetery of Naima Tolgoy on the left bank of the Huni River (Tsetserleg Aymak, Erdenemandal Sumun). The mirror fragment was placed under the remains of a bone comb in the round birchbark box set somewhat deeper than, and to the left of, the head of a female skeleton in a multiple grave («A»). Remains of a textile ribbon were evident in the knob-like handle of the mirror made of a silvery metal coated with a thin patina. The fragment is 81 x 69 mm and at the line of breakage its thickness is 2.5 mm.

A detailed description of this fragment will now be given (Fig. 1). The medium-sized hemispherical pierced knob was placed on a narrow recessed ring. Around it we find a square field circumscribed by a double outer and a single inner line. From the base of the knob there are two intersecting needle-like lines ending at the inner corners of the square, In the square field between 12 little nipples are the twelve cyclical signs. The T signs are in the centre of the outer edge of the square. At the tops curving lines hang over the two sides. Nothing remained of the L and V; only at the edge corresponding to the yu character does there seem to be such lines which were probably the lower part of the L. (As it is known TLV-shaped signs have nothing to do with the corresponding Latin letters. In European and American literature they are known as such solely on the basis of the similarity of shape.) On both sides of the T there is a small nipple on a scalloped base. The details of a bird representation are traceable next to one of these nipples. With the exception of this bird our fragment shows no complete animal figure from among those symbolizing the four seasons in the central field of TLV mirrors. Another fragmentary animal representation is seen beside the second nipple on a scalloped base: it is a small semicircle circumscribed with a double line. This is almost certainly the symbol of the North, a detail of the snake coiling around a tortoise (the tail of the snake). Not only do comparisons with several other TLV mirrors of the Han period support this assumption, but also the circumstance that this small detail of the snake happens to be precisely under the sign of the snake (Ssu). Moreover, on TLV mirrors the animal figure representing the North is either under the Ssu sign or it is turned 180°.

In the field between the Ts small nipples and animal figures, the details of a curved linear design may be seen” at places.

No details remained of the outer field and the rim. From the size of this section preserved from the inner square and central field, it seems that the original total diameter of the mirror was approximately 15 cm. This corresponds to the average size of TLV mirrors.

In discussing the dating of the fragment we first have to mention the more important works on TLV mirrors. Western researchers proposed many different explanations of the signs resembling the letters T, L and V. In China, however, these mirrors are classed according to entirely different viewpoints. This short study cannot treat all of these in detail and several of them I have already considered in other works. The most important studies on TLV mirrors are those written by Karlgren,1 Kaplan2 and Yetts.3 The TLV characters are also known in a similar arrangement from Chinese sundials and astrological implements, thus supporting their astrological interpretation.

In more recent literature the works of Schuyler Cammann are also important.4 Not being completely satisfied with former explanations he attempts to interpret the ornamentation of TLV mirrors as a whole. Thus the central knob represents the abode of the immortals, the K’unlun Mountain, and the square China herself. The Vs distribute the world into four parts, the four seas to which lead the gates symbolized by the Ts.

According to Bulling the ornamentation of certain TLV mirrors simultaneously represents the firmament and the umbrella, a symbol of power.5 The baldachin and umbrella were symbols of power in China and they were frequently used at ceremonies. These have at the same time been the symbolic representations of the sky. Their structure corresponds to the structure of certain ceremonial buildings which may occasionally be seen on the mirrors. These assumptions seem to be correct for in quite a few instances the mirrors were hung on the ceiling of the grave or on the cover of the coffin.

TLV mirrors were popular in China. They belong to the type of mirrors most common from the middle of the 2nd century B.C. throughout the entire Han period. The features of these Chinese mirrors were not identical with those of the Chou dynasty. This is most apparent in such formal elements as the increased thickness of the mirror, its relative heaviness, the wide rim, the semicircular and frequently very large central knob which supplanted the earlier narrow, ribbon-like handle. The decoration is also quite different from that of the Chou: it is mostly characterized by geometric elements. The decoration of certain Han mirror types also underwent some change. Today this makes it possible to more exactly date the different mirrors. More recently Bulling wrote a thorough study on the dating of Han mirrors. In examining the present mirror I am mainly indebted to the results of this work.6

As it was mentioned TLV mirrors remained fashioned in China from the 2nd century B.C. until the end of the Han period. The majority of the decorations on the mirror from Naima Tolgoy is largely so general in nature that it is relatively difficult to narrow them to a more exact period within this broad span. In case of the particular type, it is the central field containing the representation of animal figures and probably an inscribed band which could be most helpful in precisely dating the find. But unfortunately such information is almost entirely lacking.

Among the decorative elements the following could aid in determining the age of the mirror7: the central knob seems to be of average size and its base is a smooth circle. It lacks the four leaves around it which is so common in the Western Han period (206 B.C. – 9 A.D.). These are represented only by lines – reminiscent of leaf tips – pointing towards the corners of the square. It is striking that the arrangement of cyclic signs in the square is irregular: the signs slant left and right and their edges do not form a straight line.

Unfortunately the animal representations remaining in the central field are so incomplete that they can hardly provide a basis for dating the object. Although the representation of animal figures symbolizing the quadrants of the world and the seasons is in itself of chronological value, it provides only a broader dating. In the development of TLV mirrors the most significant change occurred in the second half of the Western Han period: the dragon and other arabesques were supplanted by representations of animal figures and immortals. These may be seen on most of the later TLV mirrors. In dating the present mirror some help may be provided by the way the animal figures are represented, the protruding, sharp outlines of the body of the animal. This is characteristic of Han mirrors; in the 2nd century A.D. relief-like representations of animals also became widespread.

On our mirror the wing and head of a bird half surround a small nipple. A similar arrangement may be seen on one of the mirrors in the Hallwyl Museum of Stockholm8 and on an inscribed TLV mirror found in Hangchou in 1956,9 both of which are dated to the Han period.

In dating the NaimaTolgoy mirror the best clue is provided by the two remaining nipples of the eight small ones located on the sides of the square in the central zone. The middle of the nipple is surrounded by a narrow rim and eight scallops. According to Bulling nipples with such a scalloped base are most typical of the ang Mang period (9–23 A.D.) and are also found on later mirrors.10 These occur on the so-called shou-tai (animal belt) mirrors from the end of the Western Han. Let me mention that the mirror fragment unearthed in Grave 25 of Noin Ula is also a shou-tai type and contains a similar small nipple with eight scallops.

Similar TLV mirrors published by Bulling are all from the Wang Mang period or afterwards (1st century, A.D.) even though these mirrors were copied later. For the present study the mirror seen in Fig. G is important. It shows on the rim three impressions of a small Wang Mang coin issued in 8 A.D. proving that the mirror could not have had an earlier origin.

Briefly, the TLV mirror fragment from Naima Tolgoy represents a mirror type common in China from the 2nd century B.C. until the end of the Han period. The mentioned details, mainly the small nipples surrounded by eight scallops, the animal figures and their mode of representation, seem to prove that the mirror cannot be dated before the Wang Mang period (Hsin dynasty, 9 — 23 A.D.), that is to say, the end of the Western Han period. The mirror is most likely from the first half of the Eastern Han, i.e., from the 1st century A.D. As far as it can be concluded from the remaining details on the fragmentary mirror, the object represents a «standard» although somewhat more stylized version of TLV mirrors emerging at the end of the Western Han period and afterwards. It lacks such signs of eclecticism as, for instance, inclusion of earlier Western Han elements into its ornamentation which would place it in the 2nd century A.D. Since I could examine the mirror only from photographs and on the basis of I. Erdélyi’s description it is not entirely impossible that the mirror is a somewhat later imitation of a 1st century TLV mirror.

Regarding the mirror find from Naima Tolgoy it is interesting to examine thoroughly the Chinese mirrors of various characteristic types from the Han period which have up to now been found in the graves of the Hiung-nu period. Their incompleteness is the common feature. Each one unearthed has been a fragment; not one was intact. There are quite a few hypotheses to explain. this phenomenon. One of the most important questions is whether the Hiung-nu peoples adopted. Chinese customs and superstitions associated to mirrors or whether they had their own beliefs Naturally this question can be answered with certainty only after finding and examining a considerably greater number of mirrors than has been hitherto found. Among the Chinese mirrors have several other functions in addition to their daily use. It is an obvious assumption that the mirror halves were some symbol for married couples or friends separated from each other. Not every mirror find is, however, such a half. The Noin Ula fragment was approximately one-eighth of the original. Moreover, the fragment from Naima Tolgoy was only the central section. Otherwise this latter was likely buried as an item of daily use. At least this is suggested by the bone comb fragment found above the box containing the mirror. It would be well to have it made clear if all the mirror finds came only from Hiung-nu graves or if the funeral customs and possible anthropological features indicate an alien ethnic group, the Chinese.

Because the Chinese mirrors found in graves from the Hun period in the neighbouring areas of Mongolia and the Soviet Union have been fragmentary, it is quite difficult to analyze them thoroughly. Nevertheless certain conclusions can still be drawn. Rudenko11 recently published their drawings.

The mirror found in kurgan 25 of Noin Ula is of the shou-tai («animal belt») type. Basically this type is very close to TLV mirrors. The animals represented and the method of representation as well as the execution of the central knob are quite similar; only the TLV signs are missing. The animal figures are placed between 4-9 smaller nipples. This kind of mirror became fashionable in the late part of the Western Han period and remained so even into the 1st century A.D. In the 2nd, 3rd centuries a different type evolved which is mainly characterized by a larger central knob and rounded animal representations. In all instances the find from Noin Ula is from the earlier group when raised lines sharply outlined the animal’s body. Recently Umehara published a photograph of the mirror fragment from Noin Ula.12 On it the representations of the two remaining figures, a bird and some four-footed animal, are still quite realistic. As it was seen from the analysis of the mirror unearthed in Naima Tolgoy, a knob with eight scallops was common from the age of Wang Mang. Thus the mirror seems to be from between the end of the Western Han and the first half of the Eastern.

We know of two mirror fragments from the cemetery of Sudjini. One contains a double spiral between four small knobs. On the remaining sections small figures of birds are visible. The spirals are likely stylized representations of snakes. I have published a similar mirror of Hsian origin which is held by the Ferenc Hopp Museum of Eastern Asiatic Art.13 Such a mirror type has been found in several graves in China dated to the Western Han period. It can be ascertained that these were widespread in the last quarter of the Western Han, i.e., in the second half of the 1st century B.C.

The second mirror fragment from Sudjini also represents a common type known as ch’ingpai («clear white») or i t’i tzu type with an archaic inscription. This type also came into use in the second half of the Western Han, at the end of the 2nd century B.C., and it was still found in the 1st century B.C. The inner circle of arcs around the bottom places the relic from Sudjini to the end of the Western Han period, the second half of the 1st century B.C.

The fragment from the Ilmova cleft14 is also part of a shou-tai mirror. The figure of a tiger is discernible on it and a small knob. This may be the fragment of a type which Swallow also published.15 There are four figures on this (of four mythical animals) located between each of the four small knobs. The tiger does not yet display the features of a mature Wang Mang style. This mirror is also typical of the end of the Western Han and the beginning of the Eastern.

Finally let me mention the fragmentary TLV half discovered in Grave 25 of the Hun cemetery near Gol Mod in the basin of the Hüniy River in 1956-57. The site is approximately twenty kilometers from the Naima Tolgoy cemetery on the opposite bank of the river. According to an oral communication of I. Erdélyi the funeral customs of the two cemeteries seem to correspond. The mirror find from Naima Tolgoy is the closest analogy to this fragment. This find is treated in two papers of Dorjsüren.16 Unfortunately the published photograph is so small and imperfect that it is impossible to state with certainty whether the mirror had other decorations besides the TLV signs and the eight small nipples. At any rate the central field is extremely narrow and there does not seem to be any inscription on the mirror. It represents an earlier stage in the development of TLV mirrors and it is also characteristic of the period of transition between the Western and Eastern Han: the second half of the 1st century B.C.

From this survey it is clear that the Chinese mirror fragments unearthed up to the present time from graves of the Hun period and greatly resembling the one of Naima Tolgoy can all be placed within a well-definable period, i.e., the end of the Western Han and the beginning of the Eastern. Although the fragmentary nature of the mirrors makes their analysis difficult, it seems that the mirrors are most likely connected with the period between 50 B.C. and 50 A.D.

From the areas around China, from Korea to the Near East, there have been a great number of finds of Chinese silks, lacquers and other utility objects, including mirrors, dated to the Han period. The reason for this may be found in the growth of China, the expansion of the Han Empire and the joining of China to the main stream of world trade. The silks reached the west through commerce, but the occurrence of some other Chinese objects of utility outside of China is not necessarily related to commercial activity.

The relation of the Chinese to the Hiung-nus of the north radically changed in the 1st century B.C. The Chinese offensives during the last quarter of the 2nd century B.C. and in the first half of the 1st century B.C. drained the strength of the Hiung-nu; military defeat and internal strife led to the splitting of the Hiung-nu empire during the middle of the 1st century B.C.; the shan-yu of the northern section had to capitulate to China. From then on the Hiung-nu never constituted such a danger to China as before. With the exception of the turmoil during the Wang Mang era they were peaceful and their role was to defend the Chinese border from nomadic raids. What the victory over the Hiung-nus and the resulting peace meant for China may be well understood from the data of Chinese reports: the emperor and empress made special offerings, reduced taxes, raised the rank of the officials, distributed meat, wine and silk to the people.

In 51 B.C. Ho-han-sha, the shan-yu on his own accord paid his respects to the court of the emperor at which time he received a great gift.17 Then it became standard procedure for the Hiung-nu shan-yu to pay their respects, to have their children educated there and to take their wives from among the women of the court. All these understandably led to their becoming familiar with Chinese culture and customs. There they probably became acquainted with Chinese mirrors of the Han period. In China the mirrors became extremely widespread and gained importance precisely during the Han period. At the time of appointments and other festive events mirrors were frequently presented as an expression of good wishes. The Hiung-nu shan-yu and their retinues paying respects always received very rich gifts from the Chinese court. Reports show that these gifts comprised mainly silks, clothes, jade objects, weapons and money. The Hiung-nu likely received the Chinese mirrors as gifts. It is also feasible that graves containing Chinese finds belonged to foreigners of Chinese or other origin who lived and died on Hiung-nu territory. The Mongolian mirror finds, therefore, besides being important archaeological means of dating the graves and cemeteries represent an important stage in the history of Central and Inner Asia.

  1. Karlgren: Huai and Han. Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, No. 13, Stockholm, 1941, pp. 1-125
  2. M. Kaplan: On the Origin of TLV Mirrors. Revue des Arts Asiatiques, Vol. XI, 1937.
  3. P. Yetts: The Cull Chinese Bronzes. London, 1939.
  4. Schuyler Cammann: TLV Patterns on Cosmic Mirrors of the Han Period. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 68. 1948; The Symbolism in the Chinese Mirror Patterns. Journal of the Indian Society of Oriental Art. Vol XIX. 1952-1953.
  5. Bulling: The Decoration of Some Mirrors of the Chou and Han Periods, Artibus Asiae, Vol. XVIII. Ascona, 1955. Pp. 33-45.
  6. Bulling: The Decoration of Mirrors of the Han Period. Ascona, 1960.
  7. Unfortunately I had no chance to directly examine the mirror which is now in the National Museum at Ulan Bator. The analysis is based on photographs and I. Erdélyi’s oral communication.
  8. Hallwylska Samlingen, Östasiatiska smarbronser, Grupp XLIX, I; E. 18. Stockholm, 1933.
  9. K’ao-ku. Peking, 1957. No. 5. P. 76. Fig. 4.
  10. Bulling: The Decoration of Mirrors of the Han Period. Ascona, 1960. p. 58, Pl. 35, 41, 47 and Fig. G.
  11. I. Rudenko: – Leningrad, 1962.p.92,Fig.65.
  12. Sueji Umehara: Studies of Noin-Ula Finds in North Mongolia. The Toyo Bunko Publications, Series A, No. 27. Tokyo, 1960. Pl. LXXI. 2.
  13. Ferenczy: Chinese Bronze Mirrors from the Han Period. Annuaire of Musée des Arts Décoratifs et du Musée d’Art d’Extréme Orient Ferenc Hopp. Vol. IX. Budapest. 1967. P. 165. Fig. 3.
  14. Rudenko: op. cit. p. 92. Fig. 65/b.
  15. W. Swallow: Ancient Chinese Bronze Mirrors. Peiping, 1937. Pl. 51.
  16. Dorjsüren: Ulan Bator, 1961. p. 100. Fig. 20;
  17. J. M. De Groot: Die Hunnen der vorchristlichen Zeit. Bd. I. Berlin – Leipzig, 1921. Pp. 216, 239, 249, 261