Stylized Full-face zoomorphic (resembles an animal) mask with ears, horns and large fangs, but without a lower jaw. In some bronzes the similarity with a water buffalo head without a lower jaw is obvious, but in many others instances this is not the case. It appears on bronze vessels of the Shang dynasty (18th-12th century BC) and thereafter on objects in various media, especially those with archaistic decoration. These fantastic creatures may have served as intermediaries between the world of men and the realms of the spirits.
The taotie mask is usually shown in a full frontal manner that can be divided through the nose ridge into two profile views of two one-legged beasts (gui dragons) confronting each other.
In bronzes a ground pattern of squared spirals, the "thunder pattern" (lei-wen), often serves as a design filler between and around the larger features of the design.
Typical features of the mask include large, protuberant eyes, stylized depictions of eyebrows, horns, nose crest, ears, two legs and a curled upper lip with exposed fangs, and no lower jaw.
The name taotie means "glutton". It came into use by the 3rd century BC, and was probably inspired by the fact that the monster is usually portrayed as an ever-devouring beast.
The function of the taotie motif has been variously interpreted: it may be totemic, protective, or an abstracted, symbolic representation of the forces of nature. It has served as a warning against avarice, gluttony, sensuality, self indulgence.
The motif was rendered in bronze and stone during the Shang (18th-12th century BC) and early Zhou (1111-c. 900 BC) dynasties.
After the early Zhou period, the taotie mask motif was supplanted by a monster that was similar but depicted with diminished power and in a more literal manner.
During the Tang dynasty masks drawing their inspiration from the taotie appears as embellishments on saddle bags on pottery camel figures. Eventually intended to scare away robbers rather than having any symbolic meaning.
See also: Animal Figures