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Zoomorphic motifs

Updated: Mar 25, 2019 Print

Taotie motif

The Taotie is a ferociously gluttonous creature described in ancient Chinese legends. The taotie motif mostly ornaments the most protruding area of a vessel's belly in a repetitive manner. Popular during the Shang and early Western Zhou dynasties (c.11th century-771 BC), it is a bilateral symmetrical design centering on the creature's nose, with paired eyes, ears, and horns. It is often decorated with dragon patterns in side profile on both sides of the head, quite an ingenious composition. It is highly probable that this particular visual imagery is applied with specific meanings. The majority of scholars agree that the ferocious face on bronze vessels is used to assert the mysterious majesty of the rulership. Shamans would communicate with gods and spirits of ancestors through these arcane motifs during sacrificial ceremonies. Recent researchers tend to refer to the motif as an "animal mask" or "beast-face" (shoumian wen).



The Taoist book Spring and Autumn Annals of Master Lv (Lvshi chunqiu) records that the taotie motif on the Zhou Dynasty bronze cauldrons (ding) is presented with a head but no body. It eats humans, but, before it can swallow them, it self-destructs. Other scholars believe that the so-called taotie motif is derived from an eye motif that decorates prehistoric potteries and jade. An eye motif often depicts the cult of the sun since in ancient folklore the sun is esteemed as the eye of heaven. The eyes of taotie are so emphasized that they allude to the creature's characteristic of chasing for light as the god of the sun.



Kui dragon motif

The kui dragon is an imaginary animal that looks similar to a dragon. It was often portrayed in side profile, with its mouth open and tail coiled up. Usually dominating a bronze vessel as the primary imagery, the kui dragon is an ancient single-footed monster in Chinese legend. It is said that once the monster appeared, there would be either a storm or a drought. Chinese ancients cast it on vessels to pray for favorable weather.



Dragon motif

The dragon in China is a legendary animal. Some motifs of this kind showcase several dragons coiling around each other, while others may have an ingenious structure with one head and two bodies. Ancient Chinese ancestors believed that the dragon is an auspicious creature which can directly communicate with heaven and earth, gods and human beings. The appearance of this mighty creature may bring wind or rain, and herald good luck or disaster. Therefore they depicted the imagery of dragon broadly as an expression of sincere worship.



Coiled hornless dragon (chi) motif

The Chi is a legendary dragon without horns, resembling the kui dragon in appearance. The hornless dragon motif is often rendered as coiling dragons interlaced together, each with an open mouth and a coiled tail.



Coiled serpent (hui) motif

The coiled serpent (hui) refers to a small-sized snake described in Chinese ancient books, which has a triangular-shaped head, a pair of prominent large round eyes, and scales covering its body. The coiled serpent motif is smaller than the coiled hornless dragon, and forms a densely knitted pattern.



Bird motif

The motif covers a wide range of birds. A bird wearing a diadem on its head is known as the phoenix motif, which prevailed during the Western Zhou Dynasty (c. 11th century-771 BC). Bird motifs were adopted as the major decoration in the Yinxu phase (c. 14th century-c.11th century BC). It appeared on vessels in large numbers during the early Western Zhou Dynasty until the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BC). Bird motifs during the Shang Dynasty (c.16th century-11th century BC) featured short tails, while those dated to the Western Zhou are characterized by long tails and high crowns.





Elephant motif

The elephant is usually represented by picturesque patterns that emphasize its sturdy body and long trunk. The motif was prominent during the Shang Dynasty (c.16th century-11th century BC) and early Western Zhou Dynasty.



Deer motif

The deer motif most often features a side profile of the deer. The squatting deer with its head looking back decorating the Western Zhou bucket of Hezi is thus especially vivid. The deer motif as bronze ware decoration flourished in the early Western Zhou Dynasty but waned after the late Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC). Ancient people regarded deer as a sacred animal and a good omen, as in Chinese legend it was the appointed ride when people became immortals.


[Photo from Mirroring China's Past: Emperors, Scholars, and their Bronzes]

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