Real and imaginary animals are frequently seen in the surface decoration of ancient Chinese bronzes. Realistic depictions of living animals were typically produced in southern China, while in the north, fantastic creatures were prevalent. One of the most characteristic mythical images decorating vessels is the so-called . It is a frontal animal-like with a pair of staring eyes, often protruding in high . Between the eyes is a nose, with jaws shown directly below. The taotie here also includes eyebrows, horns, ears, snout, and fangs. The emergence of animal-shaped vessels and the popularity of animal motifs clearly indicate the importance of animals in the repertoire of artisans of this era.
Chinese bronzes like this show a mastery in rivaling that of other ancient civilizations. They were used to hold wine, water, grain, or meat in sacrifices to ancestors or in banquets by kings. The shape of each matches its intended purpose. The fabulous animal motifs are unlikely to have been purely decorative. Although their exact meanings are unknown, they must have played a certain role in the rituals or in the popular imagination.
This resource was developed for Teaching China with the Smithsonian, made possible by the generous support of the Freeman Foundation
For the classroom
- What animals and creatures can you identify on this ?
- Why do you think the craftsman covered the with creatures and animals?
- How do we show respect for our deceased family members today?
Kwang-chih Chang. The ‘Meaning’ of Shang Bronze Art. vol. 3, no. 2, Spring 1990.