Animals in Bronze

Whether imaginary or real, animals are a recurring decorative element of ancient Chinese bronzes. One of the more enduring animal forms is the taotie, a stylized monster motif with symmetrically arranged eyes, ears, horns, snout, and jaw. Despite its one face, it usually has two bodies that end in coiled tails. Early in the Bronze Age, the creature was depicted as a linear design with central eyes and spiraling extensions that are easily lost in the surrounding decoration. Over the centuries its abstracted features were presented in high relief to distinguish them from background designs. As the Shang dynasty progressed, the contour of the motif was eliminated entirely and isolated features of the taotie were raised above the patterned ground.

Dragons provided a bountiful source of inspiration for the artistic imagination. With their horns and coiling tails, dragons are easily recognizable when combined with other mythical creatures and real animals or even when given somewhat human features.

Fish, tigers, and birds—possibly representing all creatures of the sea, land, and air—frequently appear on vessels produced in southern China. Artists in the north, aware of these more naturalistic representations of living animals, adapted their preference for compartmentalized designs to create fanciful ewers that seem to combine the shapes of various creatures. An amalgam of actual and mythical animals, they continue to intrigue and delight viewers millennia later.