The Tao-Tie Motif And American Indian Art --- By Sharon Bender






The Tao-Tie Motif And American Indian Art
By Sharon Bender
Asian Art History, Monday
Instructor Chinghuey Tiao


When I was growing up my mother was studying anthropology, particularly that of the native North American Indians. She collected pottery from the pueblo Indians and transformation masks from the Pacific Northwest. I loved examining the elegant shapes and geometricized animal and patterns of the pottery that told stories and the somewhat fearsome masks that opened to reveal a person or animal inside. I was surprised to see in my Asian Art History class first a piece of slip painted pottery that was clearly a piece from the pueblo Indians with what seamed to be a sun god . Next I saw a slide of a bronze vessel with what appeared to be Haida, Tlingit, or Kwakiutl animal motifs, except that I knew that bronze was not a Native American art material.

Of course, neither piece shown in class was Native American. They were, respectively, an ancient Chinese artifact from the Yangshao culture and a ritual bronze from the Shang kingdom with a tao-tie motif. The tao-tie particularly piqued my interest as our text reports that the meaning of these motifs is lost and currently disputed and even the Shang word is not known. A recurrent image in Shang bronzes (and degenerating in the Zhou), the tao-tie motif is usually described as being a part-human, part-animal face with eyes, ears, mouth, horns and claws that resembles but never captures the likeness of a specific real animal. Tao-tie forms differ from example to example with early tao-tie consisting of simple representations of eyes with scroll patterns placed around them to make a symmetrical pattern. Over the centuries, patterns became more complicated and the face in relief was separated from the background decoration and was elongated or constricted according to space available on a particular object with representations covering the entire object in later Shang and Zhou periods.

Some hypotheses concerning their meaning variously include a monster, a dragon, a ritual Shamanistic mask, or simply a popular design so that they have variously been described as meaningless surface decoration, fearsome animals, and warnings against gluttony. It is probably impossible to ever have an indisputable theory because no accompanying texts have been found to explain them and so many layers of history and civilization have layered upon them since Shang times. Additionally, without an understanding of the function of these animals in Shang cosmological beliefs one can hardly appreciate their meaning in art. However, I hypothesize that they carried some symbolic significance that may be interpreted by examining the Shang culture and referencing that to a related culture, the American Indians of the Pacific Northwest coast, who still widely employ variants of the tao-tie in modern times. In this paper I will attempt to demonstrate how the two cultures are related and illustrate how a tao-tie may be a totemic image.

By examining Shang culture it may be possible to come close to the truth although we will probably never know for sure. Most scholars agree that Shang civilization grew out of the earlier Longshan culture and that the kings ruled over much of northern China from their capitals at Zhengzhou and Anyang on the Yellow River. Beyond these cities, the boundaries of the empire were not clearly defined, and the Shang king had to spend much of his time waging war in outlying areas to maintain control of his territory.

The Shang political system was a theocratic monarchy. The king "occupied the top of a vast state structure that served as the center of a centripetal economy and rested upon legitimate force and explicit law; second, it lay at the core of a vast kinship organization, based on actual and legendary blood relations and coupled with the state structure" (my emphasis) . This means that the network of clans and lineages that determined each individual’s ancestral identity and rank formed social structure under the Shang.

Shang religion included a pantheon of spiritual powers and a deep belief in ghosts and spirits, a mythical element that pervaded all aspects of their daily lives. Aristocrats were sincerely concerned and influenced by their ancestors who retained the concerns they had in life and served as an intimate link between the living and the dead. This prompted them to seek otherworldly advice through divinations, most commonly, scapulimancy, to communicate with ancestral spirits and secure blessings, both spiritual and physical for the living. Another important and related activity was sacrificing animals to these spirits to keep them happy and thereby prevent disease, poor weather, crop failure and other societal problems. If a problem arose it was the job of aristocratic religious officials to find out which ancestral spirit was angry and why, and then to perform the appropriate rituals of appeasement. Thus, interpretation of omens and communicating with the ancestral spirits via divination was the central feature of religion during the Shang dynasty and gave rise to Chinese writing via oracle bones .

Because ancestral spirits were so important, proper burial procedures and funeral rites were also extremely important in order to transform a respected living elder into a venerated and powerful ancestor. The Shang elite were accordingly buried in elaborate tombs with ritual bronze vessels (among other articles) . By the Anyang period the care of elite Shang dead consumed vast material and human resources in the preparation of tombs, subsequent funerary sacrifices and preparation and interpretation of oracle bones. Reverence for their ancestors, which was the primary concern of the wealthiest class, became the engine of the economy.

The complexity and advanced nature of bronze ritual vessels from the Shang kingdom demonstrates a mastery of mold making and metallurgy as well as the dedication of vast amounts of precious materials and labor to produce them. It is generally agreed that Shang vessels are based upon earlier Neolithic, ceramic and wood examples. “Unlike cuneiform in ancient Mesopotamia, Chinese writing likely originated in markings first on pottery then on bronze vessels to indicate the clan of their maker and owner, not for business or tax accounting (my emphasis) “ . Inscriptions cast into the walls of the vessels prove that they were intended for ritual offerings of food and wine to the spirits of ancestors. The bronzes are important not only as artifacts, but also for their central role in the religious foundation of the Shang kingdom.

Because Shang society was organized along clan affiliations and only aristocrats could afford bronze vessels it seems logical that the same animals would occur frequently on bronze vessels. For example, the tao-tie on this ritual wine vessel from the Bowers Museum probably represents an owl and indicates clan affiliation while the attendant animal images may relate to specific spiritual qualities of these animals to kin group ancestral lines.

The vessel is made of bronze using an advanced piece mold technique. The shape is bold and commanding. Each side is a used as a single surface with bilateral symmetry. Lines are thick and strongly rendered. Saucer shaped eyes, rather like a bi, commands the viewer’s attention. The tao-tie closely follows the diagram in this paper. Three different elongated animal forms can be seen circling the base, the lid and the neck. A fourth fully realized animal head attaches the handle to the body of the vessel.

I believe the main tao-tie represents an owl due to its similarities of with other owl shaped vessels illustrated here and particularly with the marble owl from Tomb 1001, Houjiazhuang cemetery site in Anyang (illustration 26, Lee). When stylizing a normally round figure onto a flat surface the eyes move to the side and the beak becomes a strong central line which curves to either side

Art, in its earliest form, is always related to religion and “magic”. Magical and metamorphic intent in Shang art was inherited from Neolithic artists and the fact that in Shang art the tao-tie motifs appear on sacrificial vessels that are part of the Shang religious tradition and not somewhere else is not circumstantial and cannot be overlooked. Given the economic cost of producing these vessels combined with the spiritual and superstitious nature of this ancestor cult society it is difficult to postulate that the tao-tie images adorning them are merely decorative elements. Even if no textual reference to the tao-tie identity is found they can not be regarded as meaningless. There is so much variation in the tao-tie design, however, and it changed so frequently during Shang times, that it is probably impossible to say that the design was any single, specific thing. I think this lends credence to the theory that they represent totemic images, either as tutelary or heraldic figures similar to those used by American Indians and Eskimos. But is this comparison to totemic purposes of other cultures valid?

I believe it is valid because these cultures developed from common, perhaps even the same, root migration and later contact. My argument in simplified form is that, as shown by genetic and linguistic evidence , American peoples came from Asia both by sea and land. The cultures that gave rise to the Shang encompassed a large area and these cultural ideas spread throughout China, Mongolia, Siberia and Japan to the Americas. Because no written histories that record migration and contact we can only speculate based on common cultural features such as mythological and spiritual beliefs of Americans that share an affinity with archaic Asian beliefs. For example, both societies are organized along kin groups and affiliations, share a strong belief in the spiritual nature and oneness of all things, believe in close ties to dead ancestors who may intercede with the spirit world and a believe in a spiritual correlation between colors, elements and directions. In their relative isolation along the Northern Pacific Coast, the cosmology and symbolic artistic representations of the Northern Pacific Coast Americans, particularly the Tlingit, Tsimshian, Haida, Bella Coola, Kwakiutl, Nootka and Coast Salish, remained in use without significant development. Therefore, by examining the uses and symbolism of totemic images in native American art one may better understand the tao-tie motif used during Shang and Zhou times.

Exactly when and how the contribution came to American across the Pacific from Asia is hard to tell. Some scholars believe man was already living in America twenty or thirty thousand years ago. We still have no certain proof of this but scientists from several different disciplines support theories of migration from Asia to the Americas, but they disagree over when, how or why the first humans came to the Americas. Currently, the most widely accepted theory is that migration occurred from Asia by way of the Bering Straight. America thus received the already evolved and far from primitive concepts of Asiatic Neolithic hunters whom the early farmers followed. However, this does not adequately explain how upper Pacific Coast Eskimos and Indians are of a different ethnic group than Plains Indians.

Other archeologists believe that trans-oceanic migrations lead Asian, Australian, or Siberian peoples to any point along the coastlines of the Americas. If water routes are a possibility, even in the glacial maximum, sea faring peoples could skirt around the edge of the icepack in the North Pacific and come down the West Coast. A sea current that follows a path from Japan to the North American coastline would have allowed early humans to cross the Pacific Ocean to North America's West Coast.

Western bias against prehistoric, pre-industrialized, non-written language cultures makes it difficult for many to believe that these people possessed the intelligence and advanced, sophisticated understanding of nature necessary to bridge oceans . Although some anthropologists believe that humans did not have the skill or the technology for deep-sea voyages , others argue that cross-Pacific migrations are viable . Boat building and navigation of rafts / canoes reached a fairly high level of accomplishment among peoples bordering on the Pacific as early as the Neolithic period . Researches into the settlement of the islands of Oceania prove that by the first half of the Han period people could have sailed from Asia to the at least the eastern archipelagoes of Polynesia, and there is no reason why they could not have continued the voyage to America.


Another theory is that in addition to the land route, the first Americans also used sea routes by following coastlines or by a Polynesian sea route. This theory provides for both the differences and the similarities between ethnic Indian groups and the Eskimo. I believe this is the most plausible theory and that is impossible to maintain that there is no Asiatic influence. We may never conclusively prove any of these theories as evidence could be under 60ft of water and we have no physical evidence or written history.

However it occurred, the geographical remoteness of America meant that contact can have only occurred in spasms and not through a sustained cultural exchange. The Americans thus remained isolated from developments that were taking place in the rest of the world and much of their culture and artwork evolved very slowly compared to the rapid advancement and evolution of the Chinese. Owing to their isolation, the Native American enhanced, refined and polished what already existed in their knowledge so that modern cultures remained much more closely linked to the primitive cultures out of which they developed. Eskimo and Indian art is therefore an extension of the art of Northern Eurasia which gradually spread into North America across the Bering Strait or down the north-western coast.

Animism spread to the Americas via Asia and Native American Indians are traditionally animists, believing that everything in nature has a spirit on the inside and much of their art demonstrates this metamorphic intent. Any carved image of an animal carries great spiritual power no matter how small the object or gentle the animal depicted. Totem is an American Indian word derived from the Algonquian term describing crests showing natural objects or animals that represent the family group . Totemic images are carved into wood, clay, bone and woven into cloth or painted onto various surfaces. Most people associate them with totemic images displayed on monumental carved columns called “totem poles” but totem images appear on most objects used by Native peoples.

Totem poles could contain a whole array of animals representing a legend surrounding that animal. They could also include the animal representing the larger division of major groups within the numerous clans as a form of heraldry. No other clan was permitted to use these symbols. The carved poles originally functioned as structural support beams for ceremonial houses (much like decorated wooden architecture imprints left from the Shang) and later were used in front, standing alone, to proudly proclaim the affiliation of the occupants.

Totem can be divided into four categories. First, crest images represent the origins and history of extended families and give the ancestry of a particular family, the equivalent of a crest or coat of arms . Second, history images that record the history of a clan. Third, legend images that illustrate folklore or real life experiences as a form of story telling. Fourth, memorial images that commemorate a particular individual. In the Pacific Northwest clans named themselves after animals from their mythology which had performed heroic feats and would represent a type of tutelary or guardian spirit.

Like the Shang tao-tie, many people have difficulty seeing the whole animal arrangement in native art. Representations of totem animals are not perspective views and may represent mythical creatures that have solid meaning to native peoples. They represent complete animals more or less distorted and split to form two profiles that adjoin at the mouth and nose but not the eyes and forehead. Important features of the animals are also stylized and placed in different spatial areas according to conventions for portraying different animals and parts of animals to form a coherent image. These are easily recognized to those used to viewing the arrangement but appear as meaningless patterns of circles, lines and elongated swirls or eyes to the uneducated. Additionally, different patterns within the animal are used to designate the rank of people and animals. Eyes are depicted in different ways for different animals, some elongated, others round and bulging.

Applying an American Indian perspective and Shamanistic interpretation to the late Shang You in shape of a bear/tiger “swallowing a man” (shown at right) it is more likely that the bear is providing protection in a totemic way rather than swallowing the man. The animal does not appear to be menacing the man but rather holding him gently while carefully protecting him under his fangs as the man rests his feet on the animal’s great paws. There is no apparent struggle here as one would expect from a person about to be devoured by a fierce beast. In Indian culture bears are considered to be uniquely human in nature, bear masks are usually smiling and bear images are used on gifts to signify friendship. This You may have been a gift. The man is clinging onto a tutelary tiger/bear spirit representation for protection. Other totemic representations are stylized over the entire surface area suggesting further protective animals or spiritual guides. Finally, a horned goat/ram stands atop the bear/tiger.

In Indian hamanistic theory man and his totem spirit are two parts of one whole. This is often seen in transformation masks and masks where men are portrayed peering from underneath animal forms. Transformation masks are physical manifestations of the concept of changing from one state of being to another. Transformation masks of the Kwakiutl people are used to tell myths or ancestral origins, where an animal mask opens up to show an ancestor mask.

In conclusion, much research exists regarding the artistic process, symbolism and iconography of American Indian artwork. Systematic evaluation of these design ideas and meanings could provide a greater understanding of the use of various Shang tao-tie motifs as being some sort of totemic emblem. I believe the comparison is valid because both cultures arose from similar Neolithic cultures and possible later migration. They share similar cosmology, religious beliefs, ancestral cults, and a history of transformational / metamorphic art work. Consequently, both cultures share decoration patterns related to their spiritual beliefs, religious reality and totemic kin affiliations so that the animal representations relate to the specific reality of both cultures. The similarities between Tao-tie motifs of the Shang and early Zhou periods and that of American Indian totem motifs suggest a common ancestry and more contact than commonly believed at present. Examining Indian totemic usage of animal motifs and their interpretations, specifically, the Northwest Indians who lived with extremely limited outside contact until the 1800’s, can shed light on the meanings and symbolism of the tao-tie.

(Works Cited)
Native American artifacts, including the large Zuni pot and two Hopi bowls.
black pottery like the black pottery of the Longshan in the Santa Clara pueblo. Zuni Indian pottery is similar in shape to the Shang zun and painted much like Yangshao culture pottery. Historically, many peoples are named incorrectly by the contacting group because they assume the answer to their question “what do you call yourself” is Much pueblo pottery from the Hopi to the Zuni is similar to Yangshao pottery. Additionally, there is a traditional of correctly applied to the group and not to an object. The Zuni Indians are known as master potters and could easily have replied to the Spanish that the vessels were “Zun” leading to the Spanish calling them Zuni rather than identifying their pottery as “zun” vessels. The Indian group is properly called A'shiwi (in the Zuni language).
Chang, pg. 58.
Oracle bone inscriptions gave rise to writing in China. A form of ideogram they are representational and therefore developed from symbolic representation of objects and ideas. Without written language a highly developed iconography exists within and among tribes to represent objects and ideas although the symbolic forms, lines and curls. See Franz Boas for a scholarly review of different symbols used within the same tribes to represent objects or animals such as people, stars, and animals. Online resources tend to be superficial and focus on one symbol and state it was used by all tribes which is incorrect. Boas shows symbols that look very similar to some of the markings on oracle bones used to represent people, stars, and animals.
The tomb of Fu Hao yielded 440 bronzes weighing over several metric tons of bronze along with carved jade, stone, bone and cowry shells. Lee, pg.32.
Rawson, Jessica
“In addition to archaeological research on ancient human sites, ancient skeletal remains show a range of physical attributes suggesting separate migrations of different populations of modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) from Asia. The handful of human skeletons dated over 8,000 years ago show some regional variation, but as a group their skulls differ markedly from the broad faces, prominent cheekbones, and round cranial vaults that characterize modern–day American Indians. These ancient specimens have long and narrow cranial vaults with short and relatively gracile faces. Two examples are the 9,400-year-old Spirit Cave Man from Nevada and the most recently discovered 8.900-year-old Kennewick Man found in Washington State in 1996. Physical anthropologists see a greater similarity in these crania to certain Old World populations such as Polynesians, Europeans, and the Ainu of Japan (my emphasis)” http://www.si.edu/Encyclopedia_SI/nmnh/origin.htm. Additional genetic evidence shows that 1 in 8 Ainu show Mongolian genetic markers.
Recent linguistic evidence shows that most native American languages share common diffused traits with no evidence of outside influence for many thousands of years – except on the west coast which shows signs of more recent influence from Asia. In sharp contrast to the interior American languages, those scattered up and down the pacific coast share traits with Asian languages, creating a distinctive pacific linguistic group.
Even with an entire book and website full of evidence it is difficult for some to accept that a Chinese fleet from an incredibly advanced civilization completed a world exploration in 1442 so it is even harder to convince some of the ability of “primitive” societies to traverse the oceans.
. According to Hawaiian oral traditions collected in the 19th century, voyaging continued between Hawaii and the South Pacific after the original settlement of Hawaii and native Polynesians have claimed ongoing contact for centuries. The Polynesian Voyaging Society has recently proven they had the ability to do so. Hokule'a’s (recreated traditional voyaging canoe) has made a number of journeys since 1976 reaching all points on the Polynesian triangle including Japan in April of 2007. The voyaging canoe was navigated without compass, chart or other instruments by expert seafarers that depended on their observations of the ocean and sky and traditional knowledge of the patterns of nature for clues to the direction and location of islands. For more information on Hokule’a and the Polynesian Voyaging Society visit www.pvs.hawaii.org. Below is a picture of Hokule’a and a map of the Japan journey.

Another intriguing possibility is proposed in Geoffrey Irwin's The Prehistoric Exploration and Colonization of the Pacific. Irwin suggests that those who settled Polynesia may have used a deliberate strategy of exploration that allowed them to find islands without an inordinate risk to their lives. This strategy of exploration involved waiting for a reversal in wind direction and sailing in the direction that is normally upwind (i.e. eastward in the Pacific) for as far as it was safe to go given the supplies that were carried on the canoe. The return home (westward) would be made easy when the wind shifted back to its normal easterly direction. Irwin believes that this strategy is supported by the west to east settlement of the Pacific. Although no factual evidence would prove that this strategy of exploration was actually employed by Polynesian navigators, the strategy would have been obvious to anyone familiar with sailing. The tradition of 'imi fenua (Hawaiian: 'imi honua), or "searching for lands," reported from Hiva and other Polynesian islands, supports such a notion of deliberate exploration. Polynesian Voyaging Society website.

Research into the history of Australia shows that the first Australians arrived from Southeast Asia by boat more than 40,000 years ago.
Campbell, David
Campbell, David
See Boas, fig. 191, pg.20.3

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Artist 藝術家 . (簡歷) College Instructor 大學講師 . Newspaper Columnist 報紙專欄作家 . Traveler 旅行者 旅住歐美多年; 藝術碩士(MFA, Honored with Distinction) 美國大學教藝術史,教學評鑑獲特優(College instructor, Art History,Teaching Evaluation Exceeding Excellence).