Place of Origin: Vietnam or China
Date: Early 20th Century
Overall Length (out of scabbard): 420mm (16 ½ Inches)
The eye-catching orange visage that comprises the wooden pommel-cap of this mysterious knife is reminiscent of the taotie that decorates ancient Chinese bronzes of the Shang dynasty, typically depicted as here with bulging eyes, thick brow, and with the animal’s lower jaw missing. The pommel’s larger section has been carved to convey the face of a demon with similarly enlarged eyes, as well as stretched scrolling ears, sharp teeth, and an unnerving grin. Moving eyes mounted on springs, a spirally carved hilt, scalloped wooden guard and red-painted scabbard add further to the piece’s enticing aura.
Besides the subsequent entry in this exhibition, we do not know of similar knives, though other Chinese works of art help us to identify and contextualise the taotie in particular. Though dating to the 6th-5th Century B.C., a small plaque preserved at the Denver Art Museum (Accession Number 1997.200), for example, similarly depicts the creature with enlarged eyes, squat nose and heavy brow.
 For an overview of the creature’s iconography and possible interpretations see: Ladislav Kesner (1991), “The Taotie Reconsidered: Meanings and Functions of the Shang Theriomorphic Imagery”, Artibus Asiae, Vol.51, No.1/2, pp.29-53.