Ariadne Galleries

Incised Helmet
Period: Eastern Zhou Period, circa 770-221 BC
Culture: Chinese
Material: Bronze
Dimensions: 21 cm H
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The helmet is in extrmely fine condition with a dark green patina and is beautifully decorated with mythological representations on the front, featuring a splendid motif depicting a taotie, and on the sides composite representations of birds and dragons. All tablets are decorated in low relief, given added definition by a mesh of uniformly incised meanders. On each side, two holes punctuate the brim and these were used for cords to fasten the helmet securely to the head of the wearer.

As in the case of other helmets from across the spectrum of ancient civilizations, the design of this curious example would have been inspired by tradition and the nature of military tactics. Chariots were used extensively, especially for archery, in the earlier phase of the Eastern Zhou, known as the Spring and Autumn Period (770-475 BC), and continued to be used in the second era of the Eastern Zhou, the Warring States Period (474-221 BC), although less intensively. When hand-to-hand combat occurred, the emphasis was on frontal vision and protection from overhead blows, and the form of the present helmet is indicative of this phenomenon. Dagger-axes had long handles, ranging between 2.75 and 5.5 metres in length. Essentially, therefore, the dagger-axe was a medium-range weapon and for this reason ancient Chinese warfare was devoid of the shield in this period of its history. Instead, warriors depended on robust armour to protect themselves, usually of leather or bronze. It is a curious fact that the extraordinary Terracotta Army of the succeeding Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) at Xi’an, numbering some 8,000 warriors, is not equipped with a single shield.

The taotie monster face motif is one of the more mysterious characteristics of ancient Chinese art. They adorn bronze ritual vessels of the Shang (circa 1500-1050 BC), Western Zhou (circa 1050-771 BC) and Eastern Zhou dynasties that were used for votive offerings to their ancestors. Vessels of this character are especially ornate and are known variously as ding (a cauldron), dou (a flat, covered food bowl), fu (a rectangular, lidded dish), zun (a tall, cylindrical wine cup), zu (a four-legged table), and yi (comprising a large pot with two handles or a tall, box-like container with a roofed lid). The term ‘taotie’ is known from later historical writings, but the significance of this image is not known. It does not appear to symbolize dynastic ancestors or the High God, but its fearsome design made it a suitable choice on helmets and weapons and it played an important role in military ceremonies. Its inherent beauty and artistic complexity is unsurpassed in this fascinating period of history. The motif is highly abstract and perfectly symmetrical with extraordinary linear details that form its jaws, fangs, horns, crests, and quills. These would have combined to intimidate and strike fear into the enemy.

Taotie designs were especially popular in the preceding period of the Shang dynasty and this continued in the era of the Western Zhou dynasty, although the widespread use of other motifs emerged at this time, such as elaborately patterned birds and dragons. This patternizing style influenced the arrangement of motifs in the succeeding period of the Eastern Zhou dynasty. In some cases, birds and dragons are juxtaposed, as in the two tablets of decoration on the helmet displayed in the present exhibition.

These representations are as artistically accomplished as the taotie motif, barbed in the same manner, each panel depicting a pair of birds and dragons. The birds are crested, and are probably representations of the mythical fenghuang otherwise known as a Chinese Phoenix, facing left on each side of the helmet, in the direction of the enemy. These merge with the dragons, who face to the right, adjoining the birds in the area of their tail feathers. In their overall design, the animals are a blend of realism and abstractness, the dragons tending more to the latter than the birds. The crests of the dragons are angular and hooked, comprising inward-curving tail plumes and legs, the upper body demarcated by a curving line, the wings curled.

In the manner of observations on other artistic media in this broader period, the style in which the birds and dragons are juxtaposed is curious, blended in such a way as to lend no special importance to each animal, their abstraction serving an ornamental purpose in order to provide an elegant curvilinear flow. However, in the context of their depictions on militaria, it is easy to imagine that their inclusion may have been symbolical, as in the case of the taotie. Fenhuang and dragons were both included in the ancient Chinese zodiac and are often paired in the artistic sphere. The fen was traditionally male, the huang female, but they were also considered together as a female entity and formed a natural pairing with the dragon, which was thought of as male. Their juxtaposition was therefore considered to be a yin and yang arrangement. The fenhuang was symbolical of conflict, the dragon with storms; their potent symbolism would have made a powerful combination alongside the taotie, and this would have been directed towards the opponent of this warrior, intimidating him and simultaneously giving its wearer courage in the face of adversity. Several helmets of a similar character are displayed in the National Museum of China in Beijing, however, they lack the figurative decoration of the helmet on display and are not as well preserved.

Further literature

For the symbolism of the taotie, J. Rawson, ed., Mysteries of Ancient China: New Discoveries from the Early Dynasties (London, 1996).


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