(We're back to art history, everybody.)
The Taotie is a face motif that is found on ancient Chinese art. This is the short definition. As with all else (especially all else related to China), it gets complicated. Fast.
In art history, the Taotie (pronounced with three syllables, tao tee uh) is mostly associated with Shang Dynasty bronzes, but no one is quite sure how far back the symbol goes. It's been found on neolithic jades.
I suspect the reason we find so many on Shang Dynasty bronzes is because we HAVE a lot of Shang Dynasty bronzes, if you get me. The ancient Chinese (or the people who eventually became the Chinese) probably didn't favor the motif only for bronzes, that's just what has survived almost four thousand years. As well as jade, above, they've been found in turquoise,
and in ivory.
The fact that ANY ivory survived four thousand years is a miracle. But you get the idea; it's very likely they put the Taotie on everything. We just haven't recovered much else besides the bronzes and jades, for obvious reasons.
The vast majority of objects with Taotie on them come from burials. Some like to think this means there's some allmighty ritual purpose. But see, we don't have much of ANYTHING from the Shang Dynasty other than burial goods, so again, we've really got no way to say. From all I've seen of the human need to decorate everything (including the stuff that is red hot and nailed down), I'm betting they put the Taotie on everything.
What IS the Taotie? What does it represent? Nobody knows. I doubt we ever will, at the historic and cultural remove of four thousand years. The most valid suggestion I've run across is, it's an extension of older shamanic masks, real masks. It makes sense. You get used to making those and simply extend the decoration to other things. Other theories of course include mythical beasts and symbols for the forces of nature and gods and demons and, well, you get the idea.
There's also a distinct possibility that it's not really one critter we're talking about, but several. Some Taotie have horns. Some are crammed into little spaces between patterns. Some are incised decorations on OTHER animals. We just don't know.
I do think - and some art historians agree with me - that the Taotie evolved into the other 'swirly patterns' that have evolved through all of China's history, and are even now found on their art work of all kinds.
There you go. A small bit of Chinese art history. Bet you had no idea they produced such cool looking stuff, so long ago, did you? (Well, unless you study art history.)