As William learns, the Tao Tei are mythical beasts that attack China once ever 60 years to feed. They live in a green mountain outside of
the country and emerge only to collect food for their queen (like bees).
Unfortunately, their queen requires a lot of food, and they routinely
storm China in search of nourishment. The Wall, they say, was built to
protect China from the dangerous creatures, the Nameless Order formed to
fight them. They are viscous, and they eat anything and everything,
"alive or dead." If they ever breached the wall, warns Strategist Wang
(Andy Lau), they would devour all of China, and they would be well-fed
and strong enough to take over the world.
Surprisingly enough, the Tao Tei are actually real mythical creatures, not just created for the film. "What makes our film unique is
that these are ancient Chinese monsters," director Zhang Yimou said in
an interview with Entertainment Weekly. The Tao Tei, also known as the
Taotie, are mythical monsters known for gluttony. The monster was a
symbol of greed and fierceness, and was extremely common imagery during
the Shang dynasty (1600-1050 B.C.E.), according to Khan Academy. (Note
that The Great Wall takes place thousands of years ago.) It makes sense
that the monsters are known for gluttony. In the film, they only care
about getting tasty human food, nothing else.
As a legend, the Tao Tei don't really have a set look. They have been depicted in many different ways over the years, and The Great Wall
reinvents that look once again to make them appear more menacing and
modern, no doubt. The monsters are 100 percent CGI and look like a cross
between a lion, a giant alligator and Jaws.