The vast majority of surviving Chinese bronze mirrors are of circular, foliate or, occasionally, square shape with a raised, pierced, boss in the centre of the back, through which a cord could be threaded. They had no handles and were normally used on specially designed mirror stands, which could rest on, or be part of dressing tables. Relatively few hand-mirrors have survived from the period prior to the Qing dynasty when mirrors with separate cylindrical or elaborate handles became the fashion. The current mirror case was designed to hold one of the earlier bronze hand-mirrors on which a flat rectangular handle was cast as part of the original mirror. A Tang dynasty bronze hand-mirror of this type is illustrated in Les Miroirs de Bronze Anciens Symbolisme & Tradition, Paris, 1989, pp. 302-3. A Song dynasty handled mirror of this type is preserved in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei (illustrated in Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Bronze Mirrors in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1986, pp. 236-7. pl. 143), while another dated to the period 12th-14th century and a Liao dynasty foliated example are in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (illustrated by R. Kerr in Later Chinese Bronzes, London, 1990, p. 102, no. 88, and p. 97, no. 81 right, respectively).
It is interesting to note that in the late Ming dynasty the collecting of mirrors had become fashionable, and a self-appointed arbiter of good taste Wen Zhenheng (1585-1645) in his Treatise on Superfluous Things, commended undecorated mirrors from the Qin dynasty [221-206 BC] and mercury-coloured mirrors with archaistic floral designs, but declared those with ornate inlaid decoration and hand-mirrors with handles to be vulgar (Zhang wu zhi jiaozhu revised edition with notes by Chen Zhi, Nanjing, 1984, juan 7, p. 274). Clearly his view did not deter the majority of late Ming mirror collectors.
Circular lacquer mirror cases with painted decoration have been found in Warring States and in Western Han tombs, such as that of the consort of the Marquis of Dai, where a lacquered mirror case was found in the upper compartment of a magnificent two-tiered painted lacquer toilet box (illustrated in Mawangdui yihao Han mu, vol. 1, Wenwu chubanshe, Beijing, 1973, no. 168). However, to date, the earliest excavated and published carved lacquer mirror case with a handle is from the Song dynasty. A mirror case with a scrolling pattern carved into polychrome layered lacquer, of the type sometimes known by the Japanese term guri lacquer, was excavated from a Southern Song tomb in Wujian, Jiangsu province (illustrated in Zhongguo qiqi quanji 4 Sanguo-Yuan, Fujian meishu chubanshe, Fuzhou, 1998, p. 134, no. 124).
A carved red lacquer mirror case with rectangular handle bearing a Jiajing reign mark (1522-1566) was exhibited in Hong Kong in the exhibition 2000 Years of Chinese Lacquer, Oriental Ceramic Society of Hong Kong and the Art Gallery, Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1993, pp. 128-9, no. 65. A further Jiajing-marked carved lacquer mirror case with rectangular handle, decorated with a design of dragons is in the collection of the Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst, Cologne, Germany, and is illustrated in Oriental Lacquer Arts, Tokyo National Museum, 1977, no, 532.
The current mirror case is decorated on either circular side with scenes of female figures in landscape settings. It may be that the bamboo flute played by the lady on one side provides a wish for 'rising high', as the joints of the bamboo are jie in Chinese and thus suggest the phrase jiejie gaoxing. Probably the wish relates to a son. Some of the flowers on the handle section have particular significance for women, in addition to other auspicious references. The daylily on one side of the handle is called xuancao in Chinese and Xuan is a respectful way to refer to one's mother. The daylily is also a symbol of longevity and thus serves to honour a mother and wish her long life. In addition, the daylily is also known as yi'nancao, 'boy-favouring flower', as it was believed that if a woman wore daylilies during her pregnancy then she would bear a baby boy. Another name for daylily is wangyoucao, 'the plant that dispels sorrow'. The narcissus on the other side of the handle is called shuixian or water immortal flower in Chinese, and thus it was seen as representing immortals.