About the resemblance between the Chinese Taotie and works of art from other cultures

  • Update:2010-09-07
  • Arthur O. Eger
  • Source: zhuangshi

About the resemblance between the Chinese Taotie and

works of art from other cultures, like Aztec, Maya, and Haida

Arthur O. Eger


Many historians and researchers are convinced that similarities between the arts of different cultures originate from contact between these cultures. According to the American biochemist Allan Wilson (1985), all people that live on Earth at this moment originate from one woman: Black Eve. This woman lived in Africa 200,000 years ago. Wilson based his theory on the results from research on heritable material, the so‐called mitochondrial DNA (mt‐DNA). This DNA is passed on only via the mother. This means that differences that are found in a genome can only be the result of mutations. A mutation is a random change in the mt‐DNA sequence. Most differences in DNA material come from recombination due to the ‘mixing’ of genes from both parents. Because mutations do not occur too often, this mt‐DNA makes it possible for geneticists to trace the origin of the genetic material and to reconstruct the history of the genetic lineage. A lineage that pointed to Africa (M’charek, 2005).
Earlier – in 1968 – Harold Bailey suggested contact between cultures in Europe and South America based on their original languages. According to Gombrich (1979), artists get their inspiration from the works of their predecessors and teachers and continue based on their designs. He explains this phenomenon by using the following three principles: ‘the force of habit’, ‘the search for continuity’ and ‘the resistance to change’. From these points of view, it is easy to explain why new materials and new techniques are often used in the beginning to create copies of old, well‐known products that people are familiar with. The first cars looked like horse drawn coaches without a horse. The first digital watches had circular casings with a rectangular window to present the time (Figure 1 and 2) and it is said that the Greek temples were stone copies of their wooden predecessors. According to these historians, the triglyphs represent the tips of the wooden beams and the guttae were imitations of the wooden pegs (Figure 3).Figure 1 Bryton Digital Watch: a circular casing with a rectangular window
Figure 2 Casio Digital Watch
Figure 3 Doric order of Greek temple
The Australian art historian Alois Riegl (1977) suggested a gradual development of ornaments and decorations. In his search for the basics of decorative art, he showed that the arabesque (which can often be found in the Islamic art of Egypt) was inspired on the Greek palmette. In the same period of time, the American art historian William Henry Goodyear (1891) tried to prove that the palmette is a transformation of the Egyptian lotus motive that had reached Greece. This would mean that both the palmette and the arabesque originate from Egypt in the fourth century B.C.
Thor Heyerdahl
From all researchers that believe in ‘contact between cultures’, Thor Heyerdahl(1949) put in the most effort to prove this theory. To demonstrate that the first people who lived in East‐Polynesia originated from South America, he sailed on a wooden raft from Peru to Polynesia in 1947. The people in Polynesia believed in a god named Tiki, ‘the sun god,’ who had brought their ancestors to the Polynesian Islands.
According to Heyerdahl, the stone statues of the god Tiki on the island Fatuhiva and the statues of Easter Island (Figure 4) looked a lot like the statues of lost cultures of South America. Over the years, a number of theories about the origin of the people of Polynesia were suggested, and ‐ later on ‐ rejected. There were theories that stated that the people of Polynesia originally came from Indonesia, China, Japan, Arabia, Egypt, Caucasus, and even Germany or Norway (Vikings). Supposedly, there would
have been land between the Polynesian Islands and South America. Land that had disappeared into the ocean (Atlantis). According to Heyerdahl, none of these theories could ever persist. He believed that the people from Polynesia had come by sea, either by boat or by wooden raft. He collected many arguments to support his theory. The people from Polynesia used a system of accounting that relied on‘talking knots’ that consisted of coloured strings encoded by knots. A similar system called ‘quipu’ was in use by the Incas in Peru. (Quipu means ‘knot’ in Quechua, one of the native languages of South America, see also Figure 5 and 6.) They still lived in the ‘stone age’, meaning they were not able to produce metal objects. At the time of the first immigration of Polynesia (in 500 A.D.) the use of iron was unknown only in North and South America. The civilizations of Asia (China, Japan, Indonesia) were already familiar with metal objects.
Figure 4 Statues of Easter Island
Figure 5 The Incas used quipu cords to record historic events. A quipu exists of a long cord to which thinner cords in different colours were fastened. Sometimes, other cords were fastened to these cords. The events were coded by the place of the cords, the length of the cords, their colours, and knots that were made in the cords.
Figure 6 An imperial clerk with ‘quipu’ cords (‘talking knots’)
An old myth in Peru tells about a culture that suddenly disappeared. These people left behind pyramid‐like buildings and enormous stone statues that reminded of the statues in Pitcairn, the Marquesas Islands and Easter Island. The Incas told the Spanish rulers that these statues were constructed by a race of white gods that lived in the area before the Incas took over power. They did not look like other South American people because they were white, taller and wore long beards. The first Europeans that had travelled to the Polynesian Islands had been surprised by part of the people that lived there, because they had a nearly white skin and wore beards.According to the stories that were told, their ancestors were gods – one of them named Tiki – and they came from a mountainous country far away in the east.
In earlier times, Viracocha, the king of the sun of the Incas, had also been known as Kon‐Tiki (god of the sun) or Illa‐Tiki (god of fire). Kon‐Tiki was the high‐priest and sun god of the ‘tall white people’. The legend told that Kon‐Tiki had been attacked by a chieftain from the Coquimbo valley, during a battle on an island in the Titicaca Lake. Nearly all the tall white people had been killed. Only Kon‐Tiki and a few of his confidants could escape and succeeded in reaching the coast, from where they disappeared over the sea.
Another important argument to support the theory of Heyerdahl is the sweet South American potato that can also be found in Polynesia and that has the same name in both locations: ‘kumara’. Fellow scientists of Heyerdahl did not believe him. They thought it was impossible to travel 8000 km over sea on the kind of rafts that were used in those days. To prove it was possible, Heyerdahl copied a raft, which he named Kon‐Tiki, and risked the crossing, with success.
Figure 7 Thor Heyerdahl’s KonTiki
However, based on DNA‐research, racial, linguistic and cultural similarities, most scientists are now convinced that the present population of Polynesia originally comes from Southeast Asia (especially Vietnam and Malaysia). But still it cannot be completely rejected that the first immigrants in 500 A.D. came from South America.
However, if that was the case, they were replaced later – around 1100 – by a second wave of immigrants from Southeast Asia.
Other explanations
A lot of similarities between the arts and decorations can be explained as a result of contact between cultures, but not all of them. It is not very likely that the Haida, Kwakiutl and Chilkat people from North America in the 19th century (Figure 8 and 9) knew the taoties of the Shang dynasty in China from the second millennium B.C.(Figure 12 and 13). Not impossible, but then again also not very likely, is that they knew about the art of the Mayas (Figure 10) from 750 A.D. and Aztecs (Figure 11) from the 15th century in Mesoamerica. Yet the decorations of these people show striking similarities. According to some anthropologists, amongst them the Englishman Emanuel Loewy and the Frenchman Claude Lévy‐Strauss, many decorations and other works of art originate from the culture of the people that created them. It is more likely for a rain dance to originate in an area with prolonged drought than in a territory with many periods of rain. In this view, the function of
‘decorative art’ is seldom to ‘decorate’. Far more often, decorations serve a different purpose. For instance, a decoration can also have a protective function. In many cultures, weapons and shields have decorations of scary monsters or dragons. In these cases, the similarities do not originate from contact between cultures (although they may), but actually have the same psychological background. The use of designs such as claws, horns, or phalluses for amulets can be found in many cultures. It is not
very likely that their creators copied them from one another.
Figure 8 Bracelet of the Haida people, Canada, 19th century
Figure 9 Blanket of the Chilkat people, Alaska and northwest Canada, 19th century
Figure 10 Vessel of the Maya’s, Mexico, 750 A.D.
Figure 11 Coatlicue, the Aztec goddess of the Earth, 15th century
Figure 12 Bronze vessel with Taotie, 12th or 11th century B.C.
The robbing of valuables from graves is from all times. Many centuries ago, tombs were already plundered. The fact that guards were positioned around those graves, especially near the entrance, and that the entrances were hidden, again is most likely not a consequence of artists copying one another – or being inspired by each others works – but more likely an outcome of insight in human behaviour. Examples of famous guards are the Sphinx of Wah‐ib‐re (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) that has the following inscription: ‘Oh Osiris, Hereditary Count, Ruler, Prophet and Officer Wah‐ib‐re, born of the mistress of the house, Tekhuwat, I protect your tomb,
ward off the enemies from your burial chamber, remove the intruders from your
sarcophagus. I crush your enemies with power, chase all evil from your tomb, and destroy your adversary at the place of judgment. I close them in and they can never come out of their corpses, for ever!’ (Anon., 2009). Another example may be the Terracotta Army (Figure 14) of the emperor Qin Shi Huang Di (Qin dynasty, 221‐207 BC), although it is now believed that it served to help him rule another empire in the afterlife.
Claude LévyStrauss
According to the French anthropologist Lévy‐Strauss (1958), the similarities that were mentioned between the Chinese taotie and the decorations from the Haida, Kwakiutl and Chilkat people of North America and the Aztecs and Mayas of Mesoamerica can be related to a cultural origin. In his publication, he tries to explain the similarities between their decorative arts. In the first place, he claims that the similarities not only concern the external features, but also the basic concept.
Characteristic for most of these works of art is that they are highly abstract, that body parts are disconnected and pictured on other places than would be anatomically correct; characteristic features of faces and details are accentuated, and the total decoration is usually mirror symmetric. The faces and body parts are depicted ‘en face’ but seem to be composed from two mirrored profiles (the ‘image dédoublée’).
Lévy‐Strauss further states that the works of art are created according to rules that were agreed upon, not to rules following nature. Lévy‐Strauss believes that these works are closely related to the social structure of the society that created them.
These societies are characterized by an extremely hierarchical power structure. There is nobility that has not much behavioural freedom due to very strict rules, and there is a suppressed population of serfs and slaves. The decorative art is an interpretation and translation of the society. The split mirrored images are related to the split society.
Figure 13 Origin of the Taotie according to William Willets (1965)
Lévy‐Strauss goes much further in his theory than for example Franz Boas (1927)who presented a more technical explanation. The dual image, according to him, comes from the practice of decorating three‐dimensional objects, such as vases and containers. In this kind of decorations, the images are divided along the sides of the object and meet in the middle or in the corner of the container. By adapting the design, it is possible to create a front view in the middle and two profiles on both sides of the object. Later on, the pictures were reproduced on a plane, but the design was kept. However, this concept cannot be found in the images of the Haida people from Canada. During a visit to the Haida Heritage Centre (Skidegate, Queen Charlotte Islands) and the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver (Canada) in August 2007, several boxes with the images proposed by Boas were found. All designs are in one plane, no design was found on which the image was mirrored and divided over two planes. When asked, the experts of the Heritage Centre said they
had no knowledge of any box or container that was decorated in the way Boas
suggested. (The Haida people did not have ceramic vases, so decorations of this kind on a vase could not have existed either.)
In reaction to the theory of Boas, Lévy‐Strauss stated that there is no reason to apply a system that is normally used on vases, to a plane as well. Why should an artist not be satisfied with one profile? Why draw two? And: on a vase or container it is also possible to depict two profiles without them forming a front view. According to Lévy‐Strauss, the split representation of the images can be related to the reason why they were created in the first place: to be applied (painted) on a person’s face. The
human face is supposed to be the bearer of the decoration. In fact, the decoration is a mask. In that case, there is a functional relation between the three‐dimensional image – such as a mask on a face – and the two‐dimensional graphic figure. According to Lévy‐Strauss, all cultures that use these kinds of images are cultures where masks play an important role. The wearer of the mask plays a role in his society, for instance, as a chief or a medicine man, when wearing the mask. If Lévy‐Strauss is right, the split image stands for a society with a very strong hierarchical organization. There is a dominant nobility and there are serfs or slaves.
Figure 14 Terracotta army of the emperor Qin Shi Huang Di
The question remains if this description suits the cultures that knew and used the split representation. Some of the cultures that Lévy‐Strauss mentions do, from others it is uncertain or even doubtful.
According to Li Zehou (1988) the taotie dates from a period in China with a lot of violence and wars. ‘Most of the bronze objects (…) were ritual vessels used in sacrificial ceremonies to make offerings to one’s ancestors, or were inscribed with records of military exploits and victories. It was also the custom in those days to slaughter prisoners of war for sacrificial purposes, and to kill and even eat one’s enemies. (…) According to ‘Lu’s Spring and Autumn Annals: Prophecy’ the taotie on Zhou bronzes has a head but no body. When it eats people, it does not swallow them, but harms them (…) the indication that it eats people accords fully with its cruel, fearful countenance.’ (Li Zehou, 1988, p. 50‐51)
The Aztecs are known to be martial. They killed people, for instance prisoners of war, for sacrificial purposes. Their society had a nobility of war, a hereditary nobility, sagacious civilians and slaves. In 1790 in Mexico, an excavated sculpture of the goddess Coatlicue (figure 11) was considered to be so fearsome that it was reburied for some years. ‘The head is severed and replaced by two snakes, symbolic of flowing blood. Another snake descends from her groin, suggesting both menses and penis. Her hands and feet have been transformed into claws, and she wears a necklace of severed hands and extruded hearts’. (Miller, 1990, p. 207)
Chilkat, Haida and Kwakiutl
These people that live on the west coast of Canada knew a very complicated social structure. There was a strong hierarchy and there were slaves. Social prestige and economic standing played an important role. Both the Kwakiutl and the Haida people knew the so‐called ‘potlatch’. This was a ceremony where the host would give away an important part of his possessions. Reasons to organise a potlatch were important events, such as birth, marriage or the accession of an important posture. It was normal that the receiving party, usually another group or clan, would organise a potlatch as well, where the host – if possible – would have to surpass the preceding party.
It can be concluded that cultures that knew the split image, usually had a strong hierarchy and were often – but not always – very violent. Yet it is impossible to prove a strong analogy between them. Strong hierarchy and violence did (and do) occur in cultures that do not use the split image. Although there is some evidence that the use of these images indicate a strong hierarchy, it is not the case that all these societies know and use the split image.
Morphogenetic fields
On the 31st of August 1983, ITV in England broadcasted the program ‘A Plus’,
during which a ‘puzzle picture’ with a hidden illustration was shown. The picture was shown at the beginning of the program, around 14.00 o’clock, and again at the end of the program, around 14.30. Both times, the answer to the puzzle was revealed by slowly merging the real picture over the puzzle picture. The aim of this program was to help prove the theory of morphogenetic fields by Rupert Sheldrake (1987). In the experiment, two images were used that were specially designed by Morgan Sendall. The hidden illustrations were difficult to recognise, to make sure that only few people would be able to do so. Sendall’s designs were sent to different countries all over the world (Europe, Africa, North and South‐America). The researchers that participated in this experiment, first showed the designs to a group of subjects a few days before the broadcasting in England. The same designs were shown again a few days after the broadcasting to a different but similar group of subjects. The pictures were shown during one minute, each time first picture A, then picture B (Figure 15 and 16). The number of people that recognised the hidden image was registered.
Figure 15 ‘Puzzle’ illustrations for Sheldrake’s experiment designed by Morgan Sendall
Figure 16 Morgan Sendall’s designs unmasked
Most of the times, the subjects were asked to write down their answers. In a few cases, the subjects were individually interviewed. Only answers that were undoubtedly correct, such as ‘woman with hat’ or ‘man with big moustache’ were counted. The project leaders that took part in the experiment did not know which image was broadcasted. The design that was not shown served as a control measure.
If Sheldrake’s theory was correct, the design that was shown on TV should be better recognised after the broadcasting than before. Finally, design B was broadcasted.
The results of the experiment are depicted in Figure 17.
Figure 17. Numbers of people recognising the hidden images in figure A and B before and after figure B was shown on television.
As can be seen in this figure, the number of people that recognised the figure after it had been broadcasted was 76% higher than before. The number of people that recognised the control illustration A decreased with 9%. Although this experiment does not prove the theory of Sheldrake, it does form an indication.
Blue print
In short, the theory of Sheldrake states that, once an event has taken place in a certain way, the chance that it will happen in the same way the next time has grown.
A kind of ‘blue print’ for this event has been created. Sheldrake calls this a‘morphogenetic field’. The more often an event has taken place, the stronger this field gets, which will make the happening of the event ever more apparent.
‘(…) chemists who have synthesized entirely new chemicals often have great
difficulty in getting these substances to crystallize for the first time. But as time goes on, these substances tend to crystallize with greater and greater ease’. This principle is illustrated in the following account, taken from a textbook on crystals, about the spontaneous and unexpected appearance of a new type of crystal:
‘About ten years ago a company was operating a factory which grew large single crystals of ethylene diamine tartrate from solution in water. From this plant it shipped the crystals many miles to another which cut and polished them for industrial use. A year after the factory opened, the crystals in the growing tanks began to grow badly; crystals of something else adhered to them – something which grew even more rapidly. The affliction soon spread to the other factory: the cut and polished crystals acquired the malady on their surfaces (…) The wanted material was anhydrous ethylene diamine tartrate, and the unwanted material turned out to be monohydrate of that substance. During three years of research and development, and another year of manufacture, no seed of the monohydrate had formed. After that they seemed to be everywhere.’ (A. Holden and P. Singer as cited by Sheldrake,
1987, p. 108)
In 1920 W. McDougall performed an experiment at Harvard University
investigating the heredity of learned behaviour. His hypothesis was that learned behaviour is heritable. The experiment was performed by using white rats that had to learn to escape from a tank that was slowly filled with water. There were two exits. The one that the rats had to choose was dark, the wrong one was illuminated.
Rats that chose this one got an electric shock. The intention of the experiment was to learn the rats to choose the dark exit. The position of the exit was changed during the experiment. The experiment was carried out on 32 generations of rats and took 15 years. It took the first generation 200 trials before they would take the dark exit without hesitation. The last generation only needed 20 trials. With this experiment, the heredity of learned behaviour seemed to be proven ‐ until Crew repeated the experiment in 1936 with two groups of rats, one that descended from McDougall’s
rats and one from his own cultivation. The skills of the rats at the beginning of his experiment were equal to the final level of the last generation of McDougall’s rats.
But this was the case for Crew’s rats as well. This supports the theory of Sheldrake.
Later experiments carried out by Sheldrake in cooperation with Steve Rose (1992) with the training of day‐old chicks were less convincing, although Rose and Sheldrake disagreed about the results.
Although none of the aforementioned examples form enough evidence to prove
Sheldrake right, they do give an indication of the possibility that something like a morphogenetic field does exist. One could say that it often seems that a solution for a problem is ‘in the air’. If the theory of Sheldrake is right, the explanation for similarities in designs and decorations in civilizations that are far away from each other, both in distance and in time, can be found in morphogenetic fields.
Confronted with a problem or a question that has been there before – somewhere on Earth – an artist will, not knowingly, find inspiration in the morphogenetic field of earlier solutions, and might therefore come to the same solution. If this is true, both Lévy‐Strauss and Sheldrake are right: comparable social organizations, confronted with comparable challenges, come to the same kind of solutions (or designs).
Anon., (2009), http://www.globalegyptianmuseum.org/detail.aspx?id=5503,
consulted 20 September 2009.
‐ Bailey, Harold (1968), The Lost Language of Symbolism, Ernest Benn, London.
‐ Boas, Franz (1927), Primitive Art, Oslo; reprinted in 1955 by Dover Books, New
‐ Gombrich, E.H. (1979), The Sense of Order; a Study in the Psychology of Decorative
Art, Phaidon Press, Oxford.
‐ Goodyear, William H. (1891), The Grammar of the Lotus, Brooklyn.
‐ Heyerdahl, Thor (1949), De KonTiki Expeditie, Scheltens & Giltay, Amsterdam.
‐ Lévy‐Strauss, Claude (1958), Le dédoublement de la représentation dans les arts de
l’Asie et de l’Amérique, in: ‘Anthropologie Structurale’, Libraire Plon, Paris.
‐ Li, Zehou (1988), The Path of Beauty, Morning Glory Publishers, Beijing.
‐ M’charek, Armade (2005), The Mitochondrial Eve of Modern Genetics: of People
and Genomes, or the routinization of race, Science as Culture, 14:2, p. 161‐183.
‐ Miller, Mary Ellen (1990), The Art of Mesoamerica, Thames and Hudson, London.
‐ Riegl, Alois (1977), first publication: Berlin 1893), Stilfragen, Mäander Kunstverlag,
‐ Rose, Steven (1992), So‐called ‘formative causation’ – A hypothesis disconfirmed:
Response to Rupert Sheldrake, Rivista di Biologia – Biology Forum, 86(3/4):445‐53.
‐ Sheldrake, Rupert (1987), A New Science of Life, Paladin Books, London.
‐ Wilson, Allan C. (1985), The Molecular Basis of Evolution, Scientific American, 253
About the author
Prof.dr.ir. Arthur O. Eger (1950) studied Industrial Design Engineering at the
Technical University of Delft. In 1979, he was co‐founder of the design bureau Van
Dijk/Eger/Associates (nowadays known as WeLL Design). In 1996 he left the bureau
to become the director of Space Expo, a space museum, and the Official Visitors
Center of ESA, the European Space Agency. In 2003 he became Professor at the
University of Twente, Chair: Product Design.
Since 2000 he is Chief Editor of Product Magazine, Journal of Industrial Design
Engineering, a publication of Media Business Press, Rotterdam. Since 2009, he is
Chairman of the Board of the Department of Industrial Design Engineering of KIVI
NIRIA, the Royal Institution of Engineers in the Netherlands.



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