CASE 1:  Women and Arts in the 13th Century

Most Chinese mirrors were made with a round knob on the back with a hole through it (can you find where the knob was on this mirror?). You could run a ribbon through the hole so as to fasten the mirror to your belt, or you could place it on a stand at your dressing table. The shape of the mirror could vary greatly. Most were simply round, but some, like this one, had outlines resembling flower petals. After the Song Dynasty, some mirrors were cast with handles, more like those used in Europe.As in Europe, mirrors in China were associated with the practice of self-reflection, that is, looking into one’s inner heart. As a verb, the character jian,or “mirror,” can mean “to inspect carefully.” Mirrors appear to have played a role in love affairs. In poetry, sometimes a man or woman will see the mirror a former lover gave to him or her and think of that lover once again.

Both women and men used mirrors for dressing, for hygiene and, no doubt, for vanity. Bai Juyi (772–846 AD) wrote several poems in which he worries about looking old after viewing himself in a mirror. As highly personal possessions, mirrors could serve as gifts between friends or lovers; thus, people would have been accustomed to looking for special meanings in the designs decorating the back of a mirror. The range of subject matter found on mirrors during the Song Dynasty suggests that people intended to make a personal “statement” with their mirror about religion, history, or romance.

Mirrors were cast by specialized artisans. During the Song, craft making took place in families, since this was the easiest way for a young man to learn the trade. You could acquire a ready-made mirror from a shop or commission an artisan to make one according to your own wishes. The cost of the mirror would depend on the size, the complexity of its design, and the reputation of the artisan.

Interpreting ancient artifacts is not an easy task. To find out how to do it, look at CRITICAL ASSESSMENT

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