The Taotie (Chinese: 饕餮) is an ancient Chinese mythological creature that was commonly emblazoned on bronze and other artifacts during the 1st millennium BC. Taotie are one of the "four evil creatures of the world". In Chinese classical texts such as the "Classic of Mountains and Seas", the fiend is named alongside the Hundun [zh] (混沌), Qiongqi [zh] (窮奇), and Taowu [zh] (檮杌).[1] They are opposed by the Four Holy Creatures, the Azure Dragon, Vermilion Bird, White Tiger and Black Tortoise.[2][3] The four fiends are also juxtaposed with the four benevolent animals which are Qilin (麒麟), Dragon (), Turtle () and Fenghuang (鳳凰).[4]

Tao tie
Taotie on a ding from the Shanghai Art Museum
Literal meaningRavenous hunger

The Taotie is often represented as a motif on dings, which are Chinese ritual bronze vessels from the Shang (1766-1046 BCE) and Zhou dynasties (1046–256 BCE).[5] The design typically consists of a zoomorphic mask, described as being frontal, bilaterally symmetrical, with a pair of raised eyes and typically no lower jaw area. Some argue that the design can be traced back to jade pieces found at Neolithic sites belonging to the Liangzhu culture (3310–2250 BCE).[6] There is also notable similarity with the painted pottery shards found at Lower Xiajiadian cultural sites (2200–1600 BCE).

Etymology edit

Tripod for food (Ding), for rituals celebrating the ancestors. The surface is decorated with 3 taoties. Shang Dynasty, 1300-1050 BCE. Bronze. From China. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Although modern scholars use the word "Taotie", it is actually not known what word the Shang and Zhou dynasties used to call the design on their bronze vessels; as American paleographer and scholar of ancient China Sarah Allan notes, there is no particular reason to assume that the term taotie was known during the Shang period.[7] The first known usage of Taotie is in the Zuo Zhuan, a narrative history of China written in 30 chapters between 722 and 468 BCE. It is used to refer to one of the four evil creatures of the world Chinese: 四凶; pinyin: sì xiōng: a greedy and gluttonous son of the Jinyun clan, who lived during the time of the mythical Yellow Emperor (c.2698–2598 BCE). Within the Zuo Zhuan, taotie is used by the writer to imply a "glutton".[7]

Nonetheless, the association of the term taotie is synonymous with the motifs found on the ancient Zhou (and Shang) bronzes. The following passage from Lü Buwei's Spring and Autumn Annals (16/3a, "Prophecy") states:

The taotie on Zhou bronzes [ding] has a head but no body. When it eats people, it does not swallow them, but harms them.

— [8]

However, Allan believes the second part of the sentence should be translated as follows because the association between gluttony (the meaning in Zuo Zhuan) and the dings use for food sacrifices to the "insatiable" spirits of the dead is significant.

It devoured a man, but before it could swallow it, its own body was damaged

— [9]

Li Zehou, a Chinese scholar of philosophy and intellectual history, thinks the description of the taotie in the Spring and Autumn Annals has a much deeper meaning and that "the meaning of 'taotie is not [about] "eating people" but making a mysterious communication between people and Heaven (gods)."[8]

It is hard to explain what is implied in this, as so many myths concerning the taotie have been lost, but the indication that it eats people accords fully with its cruel, fearful countenance. To alien clans and tribes, it symbolized fear and force; to its own clan or tribe, it was a symbol of protection. This religious concept, this dual nature, was crystallized in its strange, hideous features. What appears so savage today had a historical, rational quality in its time. It is for precisely this reason that the savage old myths and legends, the tales of barbarism, and the crude, fierce, and terrifying works of art of ancient clans possessed a remarkable aesthetic appeal. As it was with Homer's epic poems and African masks, so it was with the taotie, in whose hideous features was concentrated a deep-seated historic force. It is because of this irresistible historic force that the mystery and terror of the taotie became the beautiful—the exalted.

— [8]

Bronze motifs edit

Taotie on a ding bronze vessel from late Shang era

Scholars have long been perplexed[10] over the meaning (if any) of this theriomorphic design, and there is still no commonly held single answer. The hypotheses range from Robert Bagley's belief that the design is a result of the casting process, and rather than having an iconographic meaning was the artistic expression of the artists who held the technological know-how to cast bronze,[11] to theories that it depicts ancient face masks that may have once been worn by either shamans or the god-kings who were the link between humankind and their deceased ancestors (Jordan Paper).

The once-popular belief that the faces depicted the animals used in the sacrificial ceremonies has now more or less been rejected (the faces of oxen, tigers, dragons, etc. may not even be meant to depict actual animals). Modern academics favor an interpretation that supports the idea that the faces have meaning in a religious or ceremonial context, as the objects they appear on are almost always associated with such events or roles. As one scholar writes "art styles always carry some social references."[6] Shang divination inscriptions shed no light on the meaning of the taotie.[12]

Later interpretations edit

A vessel with a taotie design from Cernuschi Museum

During the Ming dynasty, a number of scholars compiled lists of traditional motifs seen in architecture and applied art, which eventually became codified as the Nine Children of the Dragon (龍生九子). In the earliest known list of this type (in which the creatures are not yet called "children of the dragon", and there are 14 of them, rather than 9), given by Lu Rong (1436–1494) in his Miscellaneous records from the bean garden (菽園雜記, Shuyuan zaji), the taotie appears with a rather unlikely description, as a creature that likes water and depicted on bridges.[13] However, a well-known later list of the Nine Children of the Dragon given by Yang Shen (1488–1559) accords with both the ancient and the modern usage of the term:

The taotie likes to eat and drink; it used to appear on the surface of the dings.

— [14]

Some scholars believed that the Taotie motif is a reference to Chi You and is used to serve as a warning to people who covet power and wealth.[15]

In the Book of Imaginary Beings (1957), Jorge Luis Borges interpreted the figures as representing a dog-headed, double-bodied monster that represented greed and gluttony.

In popular culture edit

The Tao Tie (spelled as "Tao Tei") are the primary antagonists in the 2016 historical-fantasy epic film The Great Wall.[16] In the film, they are depicted as green-skinned quadrupedal alien creatures, with shark-like teeth, eyes located on their shoulders, and the Tao Tie motif visible on their heads. They are shown living in a eusocial hive similar to ants, where they attack the capital of China every 60 years to collect food to feed their queen.[17]

Taotie is the name of a warthog enemy character in DreamWorks's animated series Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness.

Taotie, Shadow of the Yang Zing is a dragon-like creature in the trading card game Yu-Gi-Oh!.

Taotie is one of the Four Perils of the Grandis in the MapleStory.

The Taotie appear in Valt the Wonder Deer.

Alongside the other Four Perils, Taotie is depicted in Highschool DxD/Slash Dog light novel series as a legendary demonic monster, who was exterminated in ancient times and its soul sealed into a Sacred Gear in the form of a masked racoon wielded Nanadaru Shigune, reflecting Taotie's gluttony, its has the power to devour absolutely anything.

Taotie is a recurring demon in the Shin Megami Tensei franchise.

Taotie featured prominently in the costume and set designs of the 2023 Chinese Fantasy Movie, Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms. During the climax of the movie, a possessed Taotie statue pursues protagonist Ji Fa.

See also edit

Notes edit

  1. ^ Legge, James (1872). The Chinese Classics. Vol. 5. Trubner.
  2. ^ Tom, K. S. (1989). Echoes from Old China: Life, Legends, and Lore of the Middle Kingdom. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0824812859.
  3. ^ "The Chinese Sky". International Dunhuang Project. Retrieved 2011-06-25.
  4. ^ Rong Cheng Shi Archived 2012-04-25 at the Wayback Machine.
  5. ^ Greg Woolf (2007). Ancient civilizations: the illustrated guide to belief, mythology, and art. Barnes & Noble. p. 216. ISBN 978-1-4351-0121-0.
  6. ^ a b Kesner, Ladislav (1991). The Taotie Reconsidered: Meaning and Functions of the Shang Theriomorphic Imagery. Vol. 51, No. 1/2. Artibus Asiae. pp. 29–53.
  7. ^ a b Allan 1991, p. 145,148
  8. ^ a b c Li 1994. The primary source: Lu's Spring and Autumn Annals, chapter 先識 ("Prophecy"), quote: "周鼎著饕餮,有首無身,食人未咽,害及其身,以言報更也。"
  9. ^ Allan 1991, p. 145
  10. ^ Allan 1991, p. 128; Quote: "To some, the problem of meaning has seemed impenetrable"
  11. ^ Bagley, Robert (1987). Shang Ritual Bronzes. The Arthur M. Sackler Foundation. ISBN 978-0-674-80525-5.
  12. ^ Keightley, David (1978). Sources of Shang History: The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of Bronze Age China'. University of California Press. p. 137. ISBN 0-520-02969-0.
  13. ^ Lu Rong's Shuyuan zaji is quoted in Yang Jingrong and Liu Zhixiong (2008): "饕餮,性好水,故立橋頭。". The full text of Shuyuan zaji can be found at a number of sites online, e.g. here: 菽園雜記 Archived 2010-03-06 at the Wayback Machine
  14. ^ Yang Shen's Sheng'an Ji (升庵集) quoted in Yang Jingrong and Liu Zhixiong (2008): "饕餮,好飲食,故立於鼎蓋。"
  15. ^ Wangheng Chen; Various (2001). Chinese Brozes: Ferocious Beauty. Asiapac Books Pte Ltd. pp. 62–63. ISBN 9789812290205.
  16. ^ Truffaut-Wong, Olivia (February 16, 2017). "What Are The Tao Tei In 'The Great Wall'? These Mythical Monsters Are Hungry". Bustle. Archived from the original on June 25, 2020. Retrieved June 25, 2020.
  17. ^ Edelstein, David (17 February 2017). "'The Great Wall' Stands As A Monument To Absurd CGI Clutter".

References edit