Oldest-Known Image of Confucius Found in Tomb of Disgraced Emperor

A hand-painted mirror, decorated with a painting of the philosopher, was discovered in the tomb of short-lived ruler Liu He

bronze mirror.jpg
The bronze mirror found in the tomb of the Marquis of Haihun. China Daily

Liu He, a Chinese emperor who was deposed after just 27 days on the throne, is branded in the historical record as an embarrassing blight on the legacy of the Han Dynasty. But for contemporary archaeologists, Liu has become an important figure. His family’s expansive mausoleum is the best-preserved royal tomb of the Western Han Dynasty, and it has yielded a trove of valuable archaeological finds. One of the most recent of these discoveries, reports China Daily, is a polished bronze mirror etched with the earliest-known image of Confucius.

Standing almost one meter tall, the mirror is encased in a hand-painted wooden cover that depicts the esteemed philosopher dressed as a commoner. Images of two students are also painted onto the cover, along with 2,000 Chinese characters that tell stories of Confucius and his pupils. These stories are not found in other documents dating to the Western Han Dynasty, Archaeology Magazine reports.

The mirror, which doubles as a folding screen, was likely used by Liu, who ascended to the throne in 74 BCE when his uncle died without an heir. In less than four weeks, he was deposed by the Empress Dowager Shangguan and a senior minister, Huo Guang, due to a burst of “licentious and arrogant behaviour,” explains the Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women. Li Cunxin, an archaeologist who worked on the excavation of Liu’s tomb, tells Wendy Wu of the South China Morning Post that the short-lived emperor was accused of committing 1,127 offenses during the single month of his reign.

After being booted from power, Liu was named marquis of the small kingdom of Haihun, where his tomb was discovered in 2011. More than 20,000 relics have been unearthed there, including 378 gold items, intricate carriages, jade ornaments and nearly 3,000 well-preserved bamboo slips, write Shi Xiaofeng and Lei Xiaoxun at the Telegraph. Fragments of Liu’s remains were also found, according to Ginger Perales of the New Historian.

The discovery of the Confucius-adorned mirror in Liu’s tomb may seem somewhat incongruous; the philosopher was a revered and upright figure, while Liu was—at least according to the historical record—a bit of a degenerate. But an adherence to the teachings of Confucius was a defining feature of Liu’s family. He was the grandson of Emperor Wu, the famed Han leader who made Confucianism the state philosophy of China, Jack L. Dull writes in Encyclopedia Britannica.

The mirror, decorated with philosophical teachings, may also lend credence to experts who believe that Liu was a more complex character than the historical record allows. As Shou Chen writes in Empresses and Consorts, Liu may have fallen out of favor not because he was a profligate, but because he was a “free spirit,” who would not allow himself to be controlled by the subordinates who ultimately deposed him.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.