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Set of Four Bronze Taotie-Decorated Handles

Heights: approx. 6.3 cm. (2 1/2 in.)
Widths: approx. 6.3 cm. (2 1/2 in.)

Late Han to Six Dynasties period
3rd-4th century

Each mask is similarly cast as a plaque, the features modeled in low relief with a trefoil-shaped nose flattened to suggest spreading nostrils, above a long bracket-shaped upper lip with corners drooping to form a grimace and revealing four large teeth flanked by short fangs. A tongue curls into a cylinder, open in back with perforations visible on either side, devised to hold a ring which would have served as a pull or decorative embellishment, held in place when the mask was attached to a surface by a peg through a hole in each temple. A pair of forked antlers project above each head on either side of the small central cranial bump. The beady eyes bulge beneath the furrowed and curled brows with the ears turning in bizarre coils on each side. Silvery in color, the bronze has encrustations of blue-colored patina.

The masks are small in size but great in impact. They seem to breathe down and snarl at us, challenging us with their repellant warty countenances but yet strangely attractive in the abstract quality of the lines and contours defining their features, in the rhythmic quality of the surfaces, and in the silvery brightness of the metal, bronze with a high content of tin.

Escutcheons in the form of monster masks were designed as handles for wooden, lacquer or bronze vessels, and as pulls for doors. and as architectural embellishments. Numerous examples have been discovered in tombs where they were once attached to wooden architectural members and also to coffins, chests, and doors where they would have been functional as well as ornamental. Extent lacquered vessels including lian and bianhu were often fitted with bronze attachments sometimes in the form of taotie-mask handles as were metal vessels, as illustrated here (figs. 1-3). The size of the present examples suggests that they were originally attached to a vessel or small container, perhaps a reliquary or a box, made of lacquer or metal or even wood or stone. Although the position of the monster mask in the hierarchy of symbols had fallen since its heyday during China’s Bronze Age, they were still imbued with a special numinous power, and their familiar faces alone would have supplied faith in their protective efficacy.

1. See Kaikodo Journal III, Spring 1997, no. 26.


Fig. 1: Incense burner with attached taotie masks, 9th century, from the Famen temple pagoda treasure storehouse, Xi’an, Shaanxi, after Zhongguo kaogu wenwu zhimei, 10 (Shaanxi Fufeng Famensi digong), Beijing, 1994, no. 63 (detail)

Fig. 2: Incense burner with attached taotie masks, 10th century, after Chugoku no Kin-gin Garasu-ten, Osaka, 1992, no. 43, p. 64.

Fig. 3: Detail of figure 2.

Close-up of 1 mask:

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