The ''Taotie'' is a commonly found on ritual bronze vessels from the and Zhou Dynasty. The design typically consists of a zoomorphic mask, described as being frontal, symmetrical, with a pair of eyes and typically no lower jaw area. Some argue that the design can be traced back to Neolithic jades of the ancient Yantgtze River Liangzhu culture .
Scholars have long been perplexed over the meaning 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 , 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 mankind and their deceased ancestors . The once-popular belief that the faces depicted the animals used in the sacrificial ceremonies has now more or less been rejected. Most scholars 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." It is interesting that even Shang divination inscriptions shed no light on the meaning of the ''taotie'' .
In Chinese mythology, one of the Nine Dragon Children is named ''Taotie'', possibly a derivative of the earlier motif.
According to Lu’s Spring and Autumn Annals: Prophecy, "The ''taotie'' on Zhou bronzes has a head but no body. When it eats people, it does not swallow them, but harms them.* 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."
*footnote by Li Zehou: "Some scholars consider that the meaning of '''taotie'' is not "eating people" but making a mysterious communication between people and Heaven ." Excerpt from ''The Path of Beauty: A Study of Chinese Aesthetics'' by Li Zehou, translated by Gong Lizeng .
Jordan Paper, "The Meaning of the 'T'ao-T'ieh'" in ''History of Religions'', Vol. 18, No. 1 , pp. 18-41.
Mircea Eliade, ''Shamanism'', trans. W. R. Trask. NY: Bollingen Foundation, 1964.
Robert Bagley, ''Shang Ritual Bronzes in the Arthur M. Sackler Collections''.
Roderick Whitfield, ed. ''The Problem of Meaning in Chinese Ritual Bronzes''. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1993.
K. C. Chang, ''Art, Myth, and Ritual: The Path to Political Authority in Ancient China''. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983.