The ancient Chinese believed that
good fortune and misfortune were the result of spirit
intervention. Evidence from the Zhou (Chou) Dynasty (11th Century
- 221 BCE) indicates
that the Chinese dealt with evil spirits in the same way they dealt
with their human enemies.
Several times a year and during solemn
occasions, swarms of exorcists would run through the streets shouting
and thrusting their spears in the air to expel the evil spirits.
Additionally, human prisoners were dismembered outside the city gates
as a signal as to what would be the fate of any evil spirit that dared
enter the city.
Since ancient times, the Chinese have believed that Chinese characters
a magical power to influence spirits. According to the "Book of
Master Huainan" (淮南子), when Cang Jie (仓颉) invented Chinese characters
during the reign (circa 2698 - 2598
BCE) of the legendary Yellow
Emperor (Huangdi 黃帝),
of being controlled by the magic
power of Chinese characters used for amulets and charms.
It seems to be almost universal that the art of writing evokes a
magical power in populations which are mainly illiterate.
At least from the time of the Han Dynasty
(206 BCE - 220 AD), people
wore charms or
amulets on their
waist or around their necks for protection (see pendant charms).
These talismans often carried an inscription
requesting a Daoist deified person, such as the "God of Thunder" or Lao Zi (also known as Lao Tzu and considered the author of
the classic Taoist text Dao
"expel" evil influences and "kill" demons, and also to "send down"
good fortune and happiness.
Because these inscriptions frequently requested the God of
Thunder (Lei Gong 雷
公 or Lei Shen 雷
神) to use thunderbolts (ting
霆) to kill the
bogies or evil spirits, these amulets are often referred to as "Lei
Ting" (雷霆) charms or "Lei Ting curse"
Under the rule of Chinese emperors,
official documents, including
mandates and decrees, carried absolute authority. Such influence
further fostered the belief by the common people in the power of
Chinese characters. The Daoists were able to transfer to the
spiritual world this concept of absolute power over people and the
magical power of the written language.
Thus, the inscriptions on amulets and charms resembled official
of the time. The amulet would request that a "command" be issued
"high official" to the
"evil" spirits or bogies. The command
needed to come from a deified "high official" with the prestige and
power necessary to
enforce the order. Frequently, this spirit was the God of Thunder
with his arsenal of thunderbolts. Sometimes Lao Zi (Lao-Tzu 老子),
The amulet inscriptions would request that the evil spirits be expelled
The inscription or legend would usually conclude in the same manner as
official government order with words such as "respect this command" or
"quickly, quickly, this is an order". A couple of the charm
inscriptions displayed below conclude with the expression "let
Lu Ling was a famous runner in ancient China.
Daoist magic writing (fuwen 符文) is also known
as Daoist magic script characters, Daoist magic figures, Daoist magic
formulas, Daoist secret talismanic writing, and talismanic
are symbols with twisted strokes that
sometimes resemble Chinese characters. Only Daoist priests can
read and understand this magic writing and the characters can differ
from sect to sect. Their method of writing is passed down
secretly from master to disciple.
If magic writing were easy to understand then anyone could have the
power to control the spirits.
The origin of "magic writing", according to such ancient Chinese texts
as the "Records of the Divine Talismans of the Three Grottoes" (三洞神符纪),
is from the condensation of clouds in the sky.
Some magic script characters appear to have been formed by stacking one
Chinese character atop another and making them into a single
character. This technique of linking or combining characters was
used not only by the Taoists, however, since it also appears on other
types of Chinese charms
and woodblock prints.
"Magic writing" symbols are usually placed at the beginning
and end of the inscriptions.
Several of the Daoist charms below display "magic
writing" characters and translation is provided when known.
This is a very large and nicely
cast specimen of an old Daoist charm. The central hole is round
as opposed to square.
The large characters at the extreme right and extreme left are not
Chinese but rather Daoist "magic writing". While Daoist priests
would like for the
to be kept a secret, these particular magic writing characters can now
Regarding the very large
on the left, the upper half is "magic writing" for the Chinese
character lei (雷)
which means "thunder" and refers to the "God of Thunder". The
lower part is "magic writing" for the Chinese character ling (令) which means "to
The top portion of the very large character on the right,
consisting of what looks like a three prong fork with three small
circles underneath, is the magic writing equivalent to sha (杀) which means "to
kill". The part of the character below the three small circles is
the Chinese character gui (鬼)
The inscription of the two magic writing characters, read left to
right, can thus be translated as the "God of Thunder orders the demons
to be killed".
Each line of the Chinese inscription on the charm is written vertically
bottom and right to left. For your convenience, the inscription
is written below in the
more conventional method with each line read from left to right:
雷走杀鬼降精 (lei zou sha gui jiang jing)
斩妖出邪永保 (zhan yao chu xie yong bao)
太上老君急汲之令 (tai shang lao jun ji
ji zhi ling)
The Chinese character inscription can be translated as follows:
"God of Thunder (Lei)clear out andkill the ghosts and send down
Behead the demons, expel the evil and keep us eternally safe.
Let this command from Lao Zi
(Tai Shang Lao Jun1)
Be executed quickly."
1 The titleTai Shang Lao Jun (太上老君)
was bestowed upon Lao Zi (老子)
The reverse side of the charm
is intriguing. It appears to
portray Liu Hai and the Three-Legged Toad.
Research seems to confirm that this indeed is the theme being
depicted. (Please visit my Liu Hai
page dedicated to these charms if you have an interest.)
I still have some doubts, however.
The person looks like a young woman to me and Liu Hai is a male.
Also, all the other Liu Hai charms that I have seen always show the
toad as having three legs and the picture here only shows the upper
Additionally, the Liu Hai story usually associates Liu Hai using gold
coins on a string to catch the toad in a well. In the scene here,
there are no coins shown and the waves and bamboo would seem to
indicate it is a river or stream.
However, until I can find an alternative explanation, I will follow the
consensus and present the charm as Liu Hai and the Three-Legged Toad
also known as "Liu Hai playing with the
Golden Toad" .
This charm is 61 mm in diameter and 3.8 mm in thickness.
The obverse side of this Daoist charm is almost identical to that of
the charm above.
The differences in the wording of the Chinese inscription are as
降精 (The name of the God of Thunder and the
thunderbolt is repeated using ditto
(辟), meaning to "keep away" for chu
(出) meaning "to expel"))
太上老君急"如律令敕 (Repeats 急
with " ditto mark, adds ru (如)
meaning "like", and adds chi
敕 meaning "imperial order or edict")
The Chinese character inscription can be translated as follows:
"God of Thunder (Lei)thunderbolts, God of Thunder
thunderbolts,kill the ghosts
and send down purity.
Behead the demons, expel the evil and keep us eternally safe.
Receive this edict from Lao Zi (Tai
Let it be executed as fast as Lu
Lu Ling was a
from ancient times. He purportedly lived during the time of King
Mu who became renowned for his chariot and eight outstanding
horses. Please see Ancient Chinese Horse
Coins for more information.
The reverse side of the charm displays bagua or the eight trigrams.
Bagua are frequently seen on Daoist charms and mirrors.
The charm has a diameter of 45.5 mm and weighs 25.5 grams.
While this Daoist charm has a round center hole similar to the two
charms above, it is actually quite different.
The Daoist magic writing at the right and left are different from those
above. Their meaning is unknown.
Also, the Chinese character inscription is different:
太上咒曰天元地方 (tai shang zhou yue
tian yuan di fang)
(liu lu jiu zhang)
符神到处万鬼 (fu shen dao chu wan gui)
wang ji ru lu ling)
The legend reads:
"Lao Zi (Lao-Tzu) curses saying the Heaven is round and the earth is
The Nine Songs of the Six Temperaments
The spirit of the magic writing will destroy the ten thousand ghosts
Let it be executed as fast as Lu
3 Lu Ling was a
famous runner in ancient China.
This is the reverse side of the
amulet. On the left side is
Daoist "magic writing". Its meaning is unclear.
On the right is the Daoist god Zhenwu
(真武), also known as the Perfected
During the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 AD), he was known as Xuanwu (玄武)
and was depicted as a tortoise encircled by a snake. This symbol
represented the north direction. Over the centuries this symbol
gradually evolved and by the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 AD) had
developed into the very popular warrior god Zhenwu associated with
healing and protection.
We know this is Zhenwu because he is standing on a tortoise with a
snake around it. This
charm is well-worn but if you look
carefully at Zhenwu's feet you will see an oval shaped object
(tortoise). The head and neck of the tortoise is pointed towards
the left at about the 5 o'clock position and about half way between the
round center hole and the rim. Just above the head of the
tortoise is the head of the snake.
On the reverse side of the charm and to the right of the round hole is
a "Star Official" (xing guan
星官), also known as the "Primal God" (yuan
shen 元神) or "Primal God of the Northern Dipper" (bei dou yuan shen 北斗元神).
The Chinese believe that this "star god" controls the life and fate of
an individual. An individual needs to worship his star god for
protection and to avoid misfortune.
To the left of the round hole is a "cloud" with an "ox" (niu 牛) in the middle. This
particular charm was, therefore, intended to be a good luck charm for
people born in the year of the ox
which is one of the 12 animals of the Chinese
The charm has a diameter of 50 mm and a weight of 29.3 grams.
This pendant charm is unique in
that it represents a syncretism of the major Chinese religions of
Daoism and Buddhism.
This side of the charm displays both Daoist and Buddhist inscriptions
while the reverse side displays the "eight
八卦) and the inscription chang
gui (长命富贵) meaning "longevity, wealth and
While it is a little difficult to see, the center of the amulet has a
large character of Daoist magic writing that looks like this:
As can be seen, the Daoist priests
have added certain elements at the very top and lower right but the
"core" character is:
This Chinese character refers to a
"dead ghost" and its purpose here can be better understood by the
When a person dies, he becomes a ghost. People greatly dislike
Similarly, ghosts are afraid when they see a "dead ghost" and will run
The Chinese, therefore, believe that ghosts will be scared away if this
Daoist magic character, meaning "dead ghost", is hung in homes or worn
As mentioned above, this amulet also has a Buddhist inscription which
is written along the rim. This inscription is explained in detail
at Buddhist Charms.
The amulet has a length of 49.5 mm, a width of 32 mm and a weight
of 7.6 grams.
While this old charm has no
nevertheless tells an important story in Taoist history.
To the right of the round center hole sits Laozi (Lao
子) holding a ruyi
sceptre in his right hand.
It is a little difficult to see but to the left of the hole is seated
Zhang Daoling (张道陵). Behind Zhang Daoling is a tiger. The tiger's head is
to the left of the hole with the two front legs also showing. The
tiger's rear leg is touching the left rim of the charm.
At the very top of the charm, just below the rim, is the seven star Big
Dipper Constellation with an auspicious
Just below Laozi's feet is xuanwu
(see Four Divine
Creatures) which is
a tortoise entwined by a snake that eventually evolved
into the Daoist
warrior god Zhenwu (真
武). To the left of xuanwu,
According to Daoist tradition, Laozi, the founder of Taoism,
appeared before Zhang Daoling on "Crane Cry Mountain" (hemingshan 鹤鸣山) in what
is now Sichuan Province in the year 142 AD and
proclaimed him a "Celestial Master" who was to deliver the people from
the evils of the Han Dynasty. Zhang Daoling (also known as Zhang
Ling, "Ancestral Celestial Master" and "Celestial Master Zhang") then
established the first
organized Daoist religious sect known as the "Five Bushels of Rice"
("FivePecks of Rice" or Wudou Mi
Each of the animals of the Chinese Zodiac is depicted in its own small
entire group occupying most of the area of this side of the charm.
The charm is quite worn from use over many years and, although it is
difficult to make out from the pictures which animal is which, the
character of the Earthly Branch associated with each animal is shown to
the left of each animal.
This charm is 64 mm from top to bottom and 56 mm
This old Taoist (Daoist) charm has a single
the top and displays two of the "Eight Immortals".
The obverse side of the amulet depicts Lu Dongbin
(Lu Tung-Pin 吕洞宾). In his left hand is his magic devil-slaying
sword which can slay any ghost
or demon. In his right hand is a
whisk (fly whisk) which
allows him to walk on clouds or fly to heaven whenever he
The inscription, read top to bottom, reads as zhu shen hui bi (诸神回避) which
translates as "evade all the spirits".
At the very top of the charm, just below the hole, is a lotus.
The Chinese word for "lotus" (lian 莲) has the same pronunciation
as as the word for "continuous" (lian 连) so the hidden or implied
meaning is that the inscription on the amulet should continue forever.
The reverse side expresses a wish for good
fortune and happiness. The Taoist Immortal is Zhong Kui (钟馗) with
a sword in
his right hand. He is famous as a fearsome slayer of evil
demons. The projections from each side of his hat are
"demon-seeking" devices that can point to unseen and lurking dangers.
The inscription is read top to bottom as qu xie jiang fu
(驱邪降福) which means "Expel evil and send down good
To the left of the sword, at
about the 11 o'clock position, is a bat
flying upside-down. Zhong Kui is usually depicted with a bat so
this further confirms that he indeed is the immortal being depicted on
the charm. In
Chinese, the word for "bat" (fu
蝠) and the word for "happiness" (fu 福) are pronounced the same.
(蝠倒) sounds exactly the same as
saying "happiness has arrived" (福到).
There is an additional play on words here since saying "a bat descends
from the sky" (fuzi tianlai
蝠子天来) sounds exactly like "happiness descends from heaven" (fuzi tianlai 福子天来).
There is a lotus design just
below the loop at the top. As
explained above, the lotus symbol means that expelling evil and
receiving good fortune and happiness should "continue" forever.
This charm's length is 53 mm and
width is 38 mm. It weighs 23 grams.
This is a large and heavy Daoist charm with a good deal of wear.
The Chinese inscription is qu xie
(驱邪降福) which means "expel evil and send down happiness (good
The reverse side reveals that this is another charm with Zhong
Kui (钟馗), the "Demon Queller", as its
theme. Zhong Kui is standing to
the left of the center hole. It is difficult to see clearly
because of the wear on the charm, but he is standing with his body
facing slightly towards the left edge of the charm. His shoes are
facing directly towards the 7 o'clock position. He is turning his
upper torso so that it is facing the demon (or possibly his demon
attendant) located to the right of the square
hole. In his right hand is his sword. The tip of the sword
can be seen just below the bottom left of the center hole.
As mentioned in the description of the charm above, Zhong Kui is
usually accompanied by a bat,
seen at the very top of the charm, and
which is flying upside down. In
Chinese, the word for "bat" (fu
蝠) and the word for "happiness" (fu 福) in the inscription on the
obverse side have the same pronunciation. An
"upside-down bat" in
Chinese (蝠倒) sounds exactly like saying
"happiness has arrived" (福到).
The charm is 52 mm in diameter and is 3 mm in thickness.
According to tradition, Laozi's real name was Li Er
(李耳). The emperors of the Tang Dynasty had the same surname
Li (李) and consequently traced their lineage back
Daoism (Taoism) was officially promoted during the Tang and in 666 AD Emperor Gaozong
deified Laozi (tai shang lao jun
太上老君) with the title "The Supreme Emperor of the Mystery Prime" (xuan yuan huang di 玄元皇帝).
Emperor Xuanzong, also known as Emperor Ming (Minghuang),
was even ordained as a Daoist priest and during his reign ordered that
Daoist temples be established throughout China and that every household
should own a copy of the Dao De Jing.
The inscription on the charm at the left reads yuan tian shang di (元天上帝) which
translates as the "Supreme Lord of the Primal Heaven".
This is actually a reference to a proclamation by Emperor Xuanzong in
754 further exalting the status of Laozi with the almost identical
expression xuan tian shang di (玄
天上帝) which means the "Supreme Lord of the Dark (Mysterious) Heaven".
The only difference is that the first Chinese character xuan (玄),
meaning "dark" or "profound", has been changed to yuan (元)
which means "first" or "primal". The inscription was changed
because it was a cultural taboo to write the name of an emperor and in
this case the emperor was Xuanzong.
Very little is known of Hanshan's life. He was an eccentric who
saw things and lived life in a manner probably more similar to Laozi (Lao-Tzu 老子)
庄子) than the Daoist and Buddhist monks that inhabited the
temples of the time.
Essentially all we know about him comes from the exquisite poems he
left behind written on rocks, trees and temple walls.
At the left is an example of a Hanshan charm.
The inscription at the top of the charm reads han shan bi you (寒山庇佑) which means
"Hanshan protect" or "Hanshan bless".
The four character inscription surrounding the square hole is qu xie fu zheng (驱邪辅正) which
translates as "expel evil and assist the upright (righteous)".
The inscription at the top of the
reverse side of the charm is jia xu
nian zao (甲戌年造). Jia xu
(甲戌) is the combination of one of the Ten
Heavenly Stems and one of the Twelve Earthly Branches the traditional
60 year Chinese calendar uses to identify the year 1874.
The inscription thus reads "made in the year 1874".
The four character inscription on the lower portion of the charm is chang ming fu gui (长命富贵),
frequently seen inscriptions found on Chinese charms.
Hanshan charms have traditionally been cast in Jiangsu Province (江苏)
where there is a Hanshan Temple (寒山寺) located in the city of Suzhou
(苏州). A number of Hanshan charms have also been found in Guangxi
This charm has a length of 57.5 mm, a maximum width of 43 mm, and a
weight of 19.5 grams.
This is the obverse side of another Taoist (Daoist)
charm with a loop which means it was meant to be worn on a necklace or
on the waist.
The inscription is read from
top to bottom and right to left as jiang
xie (降福避邪) which
means "send down good fortune and keep away evil".