Taotie on a vessel
The staring eyes
One of the great mysteries of ancient China is the origin and meaning of the terrifying animal faces on
Shang ritual vessels. These faces look down on us from the distance of 3,000 years but are just as awe
and terror-inspiring as they were during the bloody sacrifices of the Shang. Although the patter occurs
on virtually all bronze vessels, almost nothing is known today about them, except their name: taotie.
A later source reveals that the taotie is man-eating beast that harms people. The ferocious look of the
face would seem to confirm this hypothesis.
Because the taotie occurs on ritual bronze vessels used for sacrifices, which sometimes included human
sacrifices as well, there has to be some connection to death or the afterworld. It has been suggested
that the taotie guards the entrance to the world of death, or that the taotie is the one who escorts
the spirits to their destination.
The taotie has horns and has fangs. Sometimes it looks like a raging bull, sometimes more like a tiger.
It is definitely a mixture of different kinds of animals, combined into a dreadful mixture. But the
most striking feature of the face is undoubtedly its staring eyes. Perhaps this was part of the
function of the taotie - to watch over the slaughtering of the sacrificial victims.
It has also been pointed out that the taotie image carries some resemblance to Maya symbols. Although
there is a certain visual similarity in its symmetrical shape and angular lines, there seems to be no
connection between the two cultures whatsoever. The Shang Chinese and the Maya are separated by an
enormous distance in both time and space.
We may never know what the taotie signifies or what kind of mythical beast it was. More and more
bronze vessels are excavated with the face on them but they offer no clues to unlock the riddle.
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