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Animals in Bronze and Jade

Ritual vessel (fangyi), approx. 1300-1050

Ritual vessel (fangyi), approx. 1300-1050. Shang dynasty (1600-1050 BCE). China. Bronze. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60B997.

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Certain motifs appear with great regularity as surface decorations of vessels of the early Bronze Age in China (approx. 2000-1750 BCE to 500 BCE). Many of these designs consist of composite or wholly imaginary animals. On bronze vessels of the Shang dynasty (approx. 1600-1050 BCE), the most frequently seen of these animals is the taotie, a composite dragon-like animal whose body has been split down the middle and splayed out on both sides of the head. The head of the taotie has large eyes, horns, and a gaping mouth; the body at times has only a pair of  legs. In later periods of the Shang dynasty the taotie was joined by a wide range of dragons, birds, and other animals, both real and imaginary. 

What meaning did the taotie have? Some scholars believe that it evolved from decorative patterns and had no real meanings. Others argue that a motif as prominent as the taotie must have been central to the culture's world view. Because we have almost no written records from the early Bronze Age, these debates cannot be decisively resolved.