Animal mask design 兽面纹, also known as Taotie design 饕餮纹, is the most important design on Shang bronze ware and continued to be used in the Western Zhou. It shows a ferocious mythical animal called a taotie 饕餮 that has a huge head and little or no body. The design was first described in Mr Lu's Annals of the Spring and Autumn Period 吕氏春秋, a historical record compiled in the Warring States Period. Unfortunately, we do not know the meaning of the Taotie today.
The dragon design 龙纹 appeared in the Shang or earlier. The dragon was worshipped as the god of water in ancient China. Rain was thought by some to be caused by dragons flying in the clouds. One of the most popular designs is the kui dragon 夔龙, a dragon with a bowed body, horns, and large eyes, as shown above.
The bird design 鸟纹 and phoenix design were popular in the Shang and Zhou dynasties. The phoenix integrates features from different birds and is an auspicious animal. Originally, bird designs were a symbol of male reproductive organs. Originally, bird designs include phoenix design 凤纹, owl design 鸱枭纹, luan design 鸾纹 (based on the luan, a mythical bird), and goose design 雁纹.
The outlines of animal designs, like that shown below, were crafted skillfully to become handles for vessels, borders for other designs, or to fit the space available for other functions.
According to the Classic of Rites 礼记 the tortoise is one of the four spiritually endowed animals. The other three are the phoenix, unicorn, and dragon. The tortoise symbolizes longevity and endurance. The tortoise shown below is from a bronze ware rubbing.