Chinese Fantastic Beasts: The Taotie Demon Who Eats Humans

Chinese Fantastic Beasts: The Taotie Demon Who Eats Humans

A strange animal that preys upon unsuspecting travelers, who devours them but cannot swallow them, may be representative of the human sin of gluttony, as the taotie, a Chinese mythological fantastic beast seems to symbolize.  This strange creature has remained consistent through 5,000 years in art, but its origins still puzzle historians.

Jade cong vase with depiction of taotie demon on its corners  from Liangzhu culture, (3300 - 2200 BC.) lower Yangzi River Valley (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Jade cong vase with depiction of taotie demon on its corners  from Liangzhu culture, (3300 - 2200 BC.) lower Yangzi River Valley (CC BY-SA 2.5)

The Taotie in History

Numerous creatures appear in Chinese literature and art, including the winged lion and the qilin (unicorn), dragons like the jiaolong, shenglong, and tianlong, and mythological birds like the sanzuwu, jingwei, and peng.  All such creatures are typically grouped under the same title, pixiu (pi hsieh), which is generally transliterated into English as ‘fabulous’ or ‘fantastic’ beasts, even though the pixiu originally referred to a specific creature resembling a luck-bringing winged lion whose counterpart in the Western world is the chimera.  Among such fantastic beasts is a demon called taotie (t’ao-t’ieh) whose existence has puzzled historians.  The name translates to ‘glutton’ and its depiction appears on vases, censers, pots, and fangding (square vessels) that are more than 5,000 years old, and throughout the centuries, the creature’s portrayal has been remarkably consistent.


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