Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

Signs and Symbols

What is a tao tie mask?

One of the most common and important visual motifs in the arts associated with Confucian and CIT ritual objects is the mask known as the “tao tie mask.” Visit your local museum’s Asian galleries and head for the cases that display the Chinese bronzes. Around the main part of the body of the object you will probably see what appear to be eyes and mouth arranged along a vertical that could very well be a nose. Look more closely and a face, like that of a large cat, will begin to emerge from the patterns of the rich design. Look again, this time examining the design on each side of the central vertical, and you may see what appear to be a pair of dragons rearing up toward each other. These mesmerizing designs have long fascinated art historians. The name tao tie means “ogre” or “glutton,” a name given to the motif perhaps because it suggests the visage of bottomless hunger capable of devouring all in its path. This terrifying apparition probably represents a deity from the ancient Shang dynasty pantheon. Its presence on the sacred ritual vessels is a protective device to safeguard the contents of the vessel. The tao tie disappeared from the Chinese decorative repertoire around 1000 B.C.E., but its early prominence and striking visual power make it a superb example of deep-rooted religious symbolism.

Shou Lao, deity of longevity, holding the peach of immortality, is depicted here on a roof beam of the main hall of Taipei, Taiwan’s main Confucius temple.


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