Daoist (Taoist) Charms
Introduction and History of Daoist Charms
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
Since ancient times, the Chinese have believed that Chinese
characters have 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
"millet fell from the sky and the spirits cried at
night". This was because the spirits were afraid 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 De Jing (Tao Te Ching 道德经)),
to "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" charms.
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 imperial documents of the time. The amulet
would request that a "command" be issued from a "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 founder of Daoism (Taoism), would be asked to intercede.
The amulet inscriptions would request that the evil spirits be
expelled or killed.
The inscription or legend would usually conclude in the same
manner as an 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 it (the
command) be executed as fast as Lu Ling." Lu Ling was a famous runner
in ancient China.
(For additional information on Daoism, including material on Hundun (the Cosmic Gourd) and Li Tie Guai (one of the Eight Daoist
Immortals), please see gourd
Daoist Magic Writing
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 characters. These 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
"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.
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.)
of Daoist Charms
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 meaning to be kept
a secret, these particular magic writing characters can
now be understood.
Regarding the very large character on the left,
the upper half is "magic writing" for the Chinese
character lei (雷)
means "thunder" and refers to the "God of Thunder".
The lower part is "magic writing" for the Chinese
character ling (令)
which means "to order".
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)
which means "ghost" or "spirit".
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 top to bottom and right to left.
For your convenience, the inscription is written below in
the more conventional method with each line read from left
雷走杀鬼降精 (lei zou sha gui jiang jing)
斩妖出邪永保 (zhan yao chu xie yong bao)
(shen qing feng)
shang lao jun ji ji zhi ling)
The Chinese character inscription can be translated as
"God of Thunder (Lei) clear out and kill the ghosts and
send down purity.
Behead the demons, expel the evil and keep us
Let this command from Lao Zi (Tai Shang Lao Jun1)
Be executed quickly."
1 The title Tai Shang Lao Jun (太
上老君) was bestowed upon Lao Zi (老子)
by imperial command in 1013 AD.
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 torso.
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
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
鬼 降精 (The name of the God of
Thunder and the word thunderbolt is repeated using ditto mark ("))
(Substitutes bi (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
"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
Receive this edict from Lao Zi (Tai Shang Lao Jun) and
Let it be executed as fast as Lu Ling.2"
2 Lu Ling was a famous runner 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.
For additional information, please see The
Book of Changes and Bagua Charms.
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)
令 (mie wang ji ru lu ling)
The legend reads:
"Lao Zi (Lao-Tzu) curses saying the Heaven is round and the earth
The Nine Songs of the Six Temperaments
The spirit of the magic writing will destroy the ten thousand
Let it be executed as fast as Lu Ling.3"
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
On the right is the Daoist god Zhenwu (真武), also known as
the Perfected Warrior.
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
Above the center hole are the eight trigrams or bagua. In
the middle of the bagua is the yinyang symbol also known as the taiji (see Hidden Meaning of Charm Symbols
for more information). Additional information on the eight
trigrams can be found at The Book of Changes
and Bagua Charms.
The charm is 44 mm in diameter and weighs 23.5 grams.
The Chinese characters on the obverse side of this old
Daoist (Taoist) charm are in ancient seal script.
The inscription, read from top to bottom and right to
left, is lei ting hao ling
(雷霆號令) which translates as "thunderbolt command".
As is the case with the amulets discussed above, this is a request
for the assistance of the God of Thunder.
The reverse side of the charm is written in Daoist magic
The inscription reads yong bao
shou kao (永保寿考) which may be translated as "to protect
eternally and to enjoy a long life".
This charm is 28 mm in diameter and weighs 4.75 grams.
This old Daoist (Taoist) charm is distinctive because the
inscription is written in both Daoist magic writing and Chinese
Each magic writing character has a Chinese character next to it.
It is believed that the magic script characters have the same
meaning as the Chinese characters with which they are paired.
The inscription is fu shou yan
chang (福寿延长) which translates as "good fortune and
longevity for a long time".
(Another old charm with the same inscription, but a theme
involving the rhinoceros, may be seen at Auspicious Inscriptions.)
(A charm with a magic script character similar to the one on the
left side of this charm is discussed in detail at "Quest
for Longevity" Daoist Charm).
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
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 zodiac.
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 trigrams" (bagua 八卦)
and the inscription chang ming
fu 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
The amulet has a length of 49.5 mm, a width of 32 mm and a
weight of 7.6 grams. 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 following analogy.
When a person dies, he becomes a ghost. People
greatly dislike seeing ghosts.
Similarly, ghosts are afraid when they see a "dead ghost"
and will run away.
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 an amulet.
As mentioned above, this amulet also has a Buddhist
inscription which is written along the rim. This
inscription is explained in detail at Buddhist
this old charm has no inscription, it nevertheless tells an
important story in Taoist history.
To the right of the round center hole sits Laozi (Lao
Tzu 老 子) holding a ruyi sceptre in his right
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 just to the left of the hole with the two front legs also
showing. The tiger's rear leg is touching the left rim of
At the very top of the charm, just below the rim, is the seven
star Big Dipper Constellation with an auspicious cloud (yunqi 云气)
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,
with its head just to the right of the tiger's head, is a crane (he 鹤).
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" ("Five Pecks
of Rice" or Wudou Mi Dao
Each of the animals of the Chinese Zodiac is depicted in its own
small circle with the 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 Chinese 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 in width.
This old Taoist (Daoist) charm has a single loop at the top and
displays two of the "Eight
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 wishes.
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
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
The inscription is read top to bottom as qu xie jiang fu (驱邪降福) which means
"Expel evil and send down good fortune (happiness)".
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
福) are pronounced the same. To say "upside-down
bat" in Chinese (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
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.
Chinese swords, sword symbols and amulets are discussed in detail
at Swords and Amulets.
For other examples of Chinese symbols with implied meanings please
meaning of charm symbols.
This charm's length is 53 mm and
its maximum 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 jiang fu (
驱邪降福) which means "expel evil
and send down happiness (good fortune)"
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
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 to Laozi.
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
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),
"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
The reverse side of the charm displays the bagua
You may notice that parts of this side show traces of red.
considered a very auspicious color by the Chinese who
sometimes further enhance the amuletic effect of charms with the
addition of red paint.
This charm has a diameter of 39 mm and a weight of 12 grams.
Hanshan (寒山), also known as "Cold
Mountain", was a Tang Dynasty poet whose poems reflected both
Daoist and Buddhist (Chan, Zen) themes.
He is believed to have been a lower level official in
the bureaucracy who fled to the mountains to live as
a hermit during the An Lushan Rebellion.
The An Lushan Rebellion, also known as the An-Shi Rebellion
(安史之乱), occurred during the years 755-763 of the reign of Emperor Xuanzong
(Emperor Ming, Emperor Minghuang) mentioned in the description
of the above charm. Emperor Xuanzong was
so enamored with his beautiful concubine Yang Guifei that
he neglected his official duties resulting in popular discontent
and a revolt led by one of his generals, An Lushan (安禄山).
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)
and Zhuangzi (Chuang
Tzu 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
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 (
命富贵), meaning "longevity, wealth and honor". This is
one of the most frequently seen inscriptions found on Chinese
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 Province (广西).
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 fu bi xie
降福避邪) which means
"send down good fortune and keep away evil".
There is a yinyang (阴
阳), also known as a taiji
(太极), symbol at its
center. (See yinyang
at Hidden Meaning of Symbols)
The taiji was
introduced in the Book of Changes (please see the I Ching and bagua charms) and in the
Taoist classic Zhuang Zi
The reverse side has the eight trigrams or bagua with a taiji (太极)
symbol at its center.
The taiji is rotated
90 degrees from that on the obverse side.
The charm is 54.6 mm in length and 41.3 mm in width. The
weight is 24.2 grams.
The Chinese also produced bronze mirrors with Daoist charm
At the left is an example of an old bronze mirror with the
inscription written in Daoist "magic writing" script.
This Daoist mirror is discussed in detail at Chinese Daoist
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Chinese Charms and Coins