The taotie is a motif commonly found on earlier Chinese ritual bronze vessels: the Shang and Zhou Dynasties, and possibly further back to neolithic times. It typically consists of a frontal zoomorphic mask, with a pair of raised eyes and no lower jaw area. The motif continued into later times out of respect for the tradition.
This particular shape is known as a ‘hu’: a vase of baluster-shape, copied from bronze vessels. The form is characterised by a pear-shaped body, which continues upwards in a sinuous curve towards a generous opening (often covered with a lid). The hu type appears to have originated during the Shang Period (1600 – 1045 BC). In the Han dynasty, it was often used for storing food: indeed, many have been found in tombs, filled with foodstuffs to sustain the deceased in the afterlife.