The Secret of Real Life Magic Mirrors of The Far East

There are those among us that seek to find proof that our ancient ancestors possessed advanced knowledge and technology that equal – if not surpass – the things we know and are able to do in modern times. And among the strangest objects in the world that seem to serve as evidence of advanced ancient knowledge are the so-called “magic mirrors” of the Far East.

What Are Ancient Magic Mirrors?

The Chinese and Japanese of ancient times were owners and makers of precious and rare mirrors that are made of solid bronze but at the same time can seemingly and magically let light shine through them. To the Chinese, they referred to these previous artifacts as “mirrors which are permeable to light.” In the Western world, however, they came to simply be known as “magic mirrors.” And since their introduction in the West, these rare “magical” mirrors have baffled scientists for many years.

The front of a magic mirror was made of cast bronze and is generally circular in shape, with size of about 15 to 20 centimeters in diameter. The polished surface of the bronze, or the mirror’s front side, functioned normally as a mirror since it can produce a faithful reflection of the objects in front of them.  

The back of the mirror, on the other hand, was decorated with various characters and patterns. On the reverse surface, there is usually a modeled drawing or carvings that can be landscape featuring trees, water, birds or animals, or they can contain inscriptions and perhaps even a figure of Buddha.

In many conditions of lighting, when a magic mirror is held in the hand, it appears to be perfectly normal mirrors. However, the “magic” happens when the mirror is held in bright sunshine. When an especially bright beam of light is reflected off a magic mirror and onto a clear surface, its reflecting surface can be seen through. Hence, it becomes possible to inspect the written character or patterns on the back of the mirror from the reflection cast on to a dark wall. It is as if the solid bronze had become transparent, making this luminous effect one of the most unexpected and the most captivating mankind has ever seen.

Origins of Ancient Magic Mirrors

There are many historical variations with regard to the origin of these Far Eastern magic mirrors. However, it is generally agreed on that these ancient artifacts appeared for the first time in China around the 2nd century BC and that they were produced in large quantities during the entire period of the Han dynasty (206 BC – 24 AD).  

Discovery of the Ancient Magic Mirrors by the West

The first magical mirror appeared in Europe when the Director of the Paris Observatory brought with him one in the 19th century upon his return from China. It presented an irresistible mystery to the French Academy of Sciences, and despite their efforts to register its behavior, they could never fully understand why it could do what it can do. In total, there are four magical mirrors that were reported to have been brought from China to Europe at the time.

Then in 1878, two engineering professors presented the Royal Society of London with a variety of magic mirrors they had brought from Japan. The English referred to them as “diaphanous mirrors” and for the first time, they managed to make technical observations about their construction. However, nobody at the time could determine what produced the ghostly and beautiful projection of light from the mirror, giving the impression that the solid mirror is transparent in some way when it should not be the case.

For many centuries, the supposed mystery behind these ancient mirrors left scientists and collectors perplexed, and labeled the abilities of these mirrors as “impossible optical illusions” and therefore, “magical.”

The Secret Behind the Ancient Magic Mirrors

Western scientists began their examination of the magic mirrors from the Far East in 1832, but their efforts did not produce their desired results right away. Even in the East, it seemed the knowledge of how to intentionally recreate these magic mirrors were elusive, even though its possibility was not completely out of reach.

About 1,200 years ago, the secret to constructing magic mirrors was recorded in an ancient Chinese text titled the “Record of Ancient Mirrors.” The book supposedly contains the secrets of these enigmatic objects and their constructions. It described the method of crafting solid bronze mirrors with decorations, written characters or patterns on the reverse side in such a way that they could cast a reflection of these images or inscriptions on a nearby surface when light hits the front and polished side of the mirror in a seeming transparent effect. Unfortunately, the book has been lost for over a thousand years.

Magic mirrors were also described in the “Dream Pool Essays” by Shen Kuo in the 11th century, who owned three of these mirrors as a family heirloom. Astonished as how solid metal could be transparent, Shen guessed that some sort of quenching technique was used to produce tiny wrinkles on the surface of the mirror that are too small to be observed by the naked eye.

It was in 1932 when it was finally discovered why the reflections of the magic mirror showed the designs on the back. According to British physicist, chemist and mathematician Sir William Henry Bragg, although the surface of the mirror is polished and seems to look like they’re completely flat, the front is actually curved into a convex form by scraping and scratching before the surface is polished. It is then coated with a mercury amalgam. This complex process creates stresses and buckling, resulting in bulges on the surface of the mirror which is too minute for the naked eye to perceive. These bulges are the ones that match the design carved on the back of the mirror.

And so, when the mirror reflected bright light or sunbeam against a dark wall, the effect reproduces the patterns in a magnified manner as if they were passing through solid bronze by way of these light beams.

It is important to note, however, that while this method explains the creation of a Chinese or Han magic mirror, it is not the same method that is applied in making a Japanese magic mirror, as the optical properties of the images produced by the two types of mirror were not made by the same process. Moreover, unlike the rare Chinese models, there are many Japanese magic mirrors around the world, probably because in ancient Japan, mirrors were considered precious items that were carefully taken care of.

Today, it is rumored that Yamamoto Akihisa is the last manufacturer of magic mirrors in Japan. When the Kyoto Journal interviewed him, the artisan explained part of his technique in making these mirrors, which he revealed that he had learned from his father, who also learned it from his father, and so on, over several generations.

Even now, our generation is just starting to learn about these magic mirrors, and there are a lot of things that we do not know about these ancient artifacts. Perhaps we may never really know the true meaning behind these “magical” mirrors because ancient records describing these mysterious objects are gone forever. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that these ancient magic mirrors in China and Japan are already a part of the magical history of mankind for being undoubtedly one of the strangest objects in the world.