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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Affordable luxury : the entanglements of metal mirrors in Han China (202 BCE-220 CE) Guo, Yanlong


This dissertation is a relational study of the multiple entanglements of metal mirrors with consumers in the context of a monetized economy during the Han dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE). By looking at the triad of physical, economic, and semiotic interdependences, I trace the complex ways in which Han users shaped their mirrors and vice versa. Balancing transmitted and excavated sources, qualitative and quantitative methods, and physical sciences and art historical inquiries, I foreground an interdisciplinary understanding of the early imperial history of luxury consumption. This study follows these objects, from the accoutrements of mirrors such as ribbons, stands, pouches, and boxes, to all sorts of metal mirrors made from bronze, iron, lead, and those with additional ornaments, as they were purchased, then displayed and appreciated in the quotidian as well as mortuary settings of both wealthy and middle classes in Han China. I argue that these specular discs served as a dominant form of affordable luxury, signaling personal intimacies, monetary wealth, and aesthetic enjoyments.         This study is divided into four chapters. Chapter 1, "Introduction," introduces the theoretical framework of entanglement and a perspective on the consumption of mirrors as luxuries. Chapter 2, “The Physical Entanglements,” explores the use value of Han mirrors, arguing for the portability and intimacy of the relations between these small yet intricate objects and their Han users as revealed through the holding, viewing, wearing, and burying practices. Chapter 3, “The Economic Entanglements,” investigates the market value of the mirrors, the socioeconomic status of consumers, and the gifting practices based upon such value. Chapter 4, “The Semiotic Entanglements,” highlights the physical, optical and symbolic interdependence between mirrors and the people of early imperial China. Moving beyond issues of representation, this chapter closely scrutinizes the aestheticization, symbolic correlations, and attainment of brightness in a variety of practices dependent upon the medium of Han mirrors. This study contributes to the field of early Chinese art with a nuanced examination of Han mirrors as treasured things that created systems of value, and with a reconstruction of lost linkages between the mirror as physical paraphernalia, source of value, and embodied aesthetic.  

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