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Arts of Asia

The MFAH collections of art from China, India, Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia reflect Houston’s diverse communities. Ancient and contemporary works are displayed together to create innovative juxtapositions.


Tripod Ritual Vessel (Li)
13th century B.C.

6 7/8 x 5 1/2 x 5 1/4 inches

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Museum purchase with funds provided by the Friends of Asian Art, with gifts from Nancy C. Allen; the Patrick Wedler Robinson Charitable Trust; Drs. Ellin and Robert G. Grossman; Barbara E. Butler; Marjorie G. Horning; Mr. and Mrs. Meredith Long; Milton D. Rosenau, Jr., and Dr. Ellen R. Gritz; and Mrs. and Mrs. Philip J. John, Jr.

Arts of Asia

This small three-legged Chinese vessel, called a li, is covered with an animal-like mask motif that features horns, ears, eyebrows, and a prominent pair of eyes.

The li is part of an artistic tradition that can be traced back to Neolithic times. Early bronze vessels such as this one were primarily used to hold wine during ritual feasts honoring a family's ancestors. Eventually, vessels like the li were used to hold food as well.
The motif on the surface of this vessel is a commonly called taotie.  Though taotie appeared frequently on bronzes of the Shang period (16th to mid-11th century B.C.), the significance of this imagery remains unknown.   Experts have suggested that taotie are symbolic of the spirits of ancestors and supernatural protectors, or mythical beasts. Although they tended to follow a general form, the appearance and specific components of taotie masks varied by period and place of production.