The Great Wall opens with William (Matt Damon), a European mercenary, riding through desert lands with a handful of men. When they stop to make camp for the night, they are attacked by a mysterious monster, which kills three of their men, leaving only William and his friend Tovar (Pedro Pascal) alive. Only once William and Tovar make their way to the Great Wall and the Nameless Order (the soldiers that guard the Great Wall) do they learn what attacked them: a Tao Tei. From there, The Great Wall becomes a massive monster movie pitting man against mythical creature. But just what are the Tao Tei in The Great Wall?
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.
Good luck with those Tao Tei nightmares.