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Marc Haefele looks into the Huntington's ancient mirrors

Mirror with Quatrefoil, Grass Motifs, Stars, and Linked Arc. Western Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.–8 C.E.)
Mirror with Quatrefoil, Grass Motifs, Stars, and Linked Arc. Western Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.–8 C.E.)

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Over 4,000 years ago, someone in China made the first mirror. We haven’t stopped looking at ourselves since. They’re so familiar, but they retain a mystery to this day, a mystery explored in a new exhibit at the Huntington of ancient Chinese bronze mirrors.

These 80-some metal mirrors are mostly round, and range in size from a modern CD to an old-fashioned record. The oldest are some of the oldest metal artifacts you will ever see, dating to hundreds of years before the Trojan War.

Ironically, on most of the mirrors on display at the Huntington, the reflecting surfaces themselves are corroded away. But what is left on their backs is spectacular -- portraits of people, birds and animals, lions and writhing dragons. Leaping apes and fantastic mythical creatures, tangles of vines and flowers, entire mythologies of millennia past, in metal applique cast, chased or hammered into the base alloy of tin and copper.

The most wonderful thing about these decorations is that they are so tactile. As you hold the mirror in your hand in front of your face, your fingers caress the bronze figures that ornament them. Many represent the animals of the Chinese Zodiac. The inscriptions among them tend to wish the user long life, full of pleasure and good luck.

It’s a pity the mirror sides are mostly unrestored … but not because I’m a narcissist. Scholar Joseph Needham wrote that some of these surfaces had hidden Chinese characters that would flash on the wall in a reflected sunbeam. But the original marvel of the first bronze mirror 4,000 years ago must have simply been the magical discovery that, if you polished a piece of metal long enough, there would be your face looking back at you, like you were looking into a puddle of water.
We don’t know exactly how these objects were used. “Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motifs,” from the 1800s, refers to a protrusion on the back of the mirror that the user presumably put a silk cord through, which might have been for the hand or to hang the mirror on a hook. There aren’t many pictures of people using these mirrors in Chinese art, but the exhibit at the Huntington includes a statue of a mirror user. It's a 2,000 year old terra cotta figure of a young, graceful woman with powder puff in one hand, mirror in the other. She’s kneeling in a full skirt that puddles around her.

Who used them? Perhaps, mostly women. Or is that sexist? In any case, one of the true delights of this absorbing show is an intact Chinese makeup kit from about the time of Julius Caesar … complete with what is surely the world’s oldest known powder puff. The conscientious person of that era would look at his or her face in the little bronze circle, and dab powder here and there, before venturing out on a torrid night on the town in the Forbidden City.

So it is appropriate that this singular exhibit of one boudoir essential was made possible by Lloyd Cotsen, who has been collecting ancient bronze mirrors for 60 years. Cotsen is otherwise best known for bringing us the transparent soap known as Neutrogena … and soap and mirrors have been the uncelebrated bulwarks of global civilization.