One of the
most dangerous and inauspicious days of the year in ancient China was
the 5th day of the 5th month, according to the
lunar calendar, which was popularly referred to as "Double 5" or
"Double 5th", and also known as tian zhong jie (天中节).
This day marked the beginning of summer which by midseason meant
dangerous animals and insects, the spread of infectious
diseases, and the appearance of evil spirits.
dangerous period of that day was considered to be
actually divided each day into twelve two-hour periods known as shichen
(时辰). "Noon", then, would be
the two hour period from 11AM - 1PM which according to shichen is called wu (午).
One popular way to protect oneself during this day was to drink realgar
wine (xiong huang jiu
contains arsenic sulfide which
was believed to be an antidote for
poisons and would therefore drive away evil spirits and kill insects
and other poisonous animals.
Since realgar wine was too strong for children to drink, parents would
use the wine to write the Chinese character "king" (wang 王) on a child's forehead as a
form of protection.
The Chinese would also mix into wine powdered cinnabar (dan sha 丹砂 or zhu sha 朱砂), which is the mineral
from which mercury is
made. The cinnabar would turn the wine red which the Chinese
believe would help fend off attacks from evil spirits.
Other protective measures included
hanging branches of artemisia or
mugwort (ai 艾)
over gates and
doors because the leaves resemble the paws of tigers and the aroma is believed
to repel insects. Calamus
or "sweet flag" is also hung above gates because the leaves
It was also customary to hang pictures of Zhong Kui, brandishing his magic sword which could slay evil
spirits, on doors and gates.
However, one of the most common forms of protection from the dangers
was the wearing of "five poison"
Chinese parents would also have their children wear an amulet bearing
the images of the five
poisons or hang small bags filled with mugwort around their
It should be noted also that in China today
the fifth day of the fifth month is celebrated as the popular Duanwu
Festival (duan wu jie
端午节) or "Dragon Boat Festival". The day commemorates the life and
suicide of Qu Yuan (屈原) (340 BC - 278 BC), a famous poet and minister
from the State of Chu of
the Warring States Period.
The Five Poisons
poisons" (wudu 五毒)
refer to five poisonous
animals. In contrast to what one might expect, the purpose of the
five poisons depicted on an
amulet is to counteract pernicious influences. This is
because the Chinese believe in combating poison with poison as shown by
the above examples of drinking realgar (arsenic) wine and mixing
(mercury) with wine.
There is legendary evidence to
support this belief of combating poison
with poison. Shennong
(神农), also known as the Yan Emperor (yandi
炎帝), was a ruler who lived about 5,000 years ago and is credited with
teaching the Chinese how to cultivate crops. He is also
considered the Father of Chinese
Medicine because he discovered and
personally tested upon himself hundreds of medicinal and poisonous
herbs. He was able to test these herbs because he allegedly had a
transparent body and could therefore observe their effects. He
never suffered long-term effects, however, because the poisons
apparently canceled each other out.
Some historical sources refer to the five
poisons as consisting of
the snake, scorpion,
centipede, toad and spider. Other references
have the lizard replacing the spider. Still other sources mention
the five poisons as the
snake, scorpion, centipede, spider and the "three-legged toad".
(Learn more about the "three-legged
toad" at Liu Hai and the Three-Legged Toad.)
As you can see, the charm has a crack. If you look closely, you
will see an area at the upper left of the square hole that has been
flattened. Most likely, this charm was at some time nailed to the
gate of an old traditional Chinese house to
protect the family from
evil spirits and poisonous animals associated with this unlucky day.
The reverse side of the charm displays
members of the five poisons.
Above the square hole is the centipede with its venomous claws.
At the upper right is a lizard. Unfortunately, the lizard's head
has been flattened by the nail so that the only discernable feature is
At the lower right is a tiger which is shown running in full
The tiger is the only member of
the group that is not poisonous so why is it included with the five
The reason has to do with the nature of the tiger. The Chinese consider
the tiger to be a solitary animal.
There is an old Chinese
proverb which says hu du bu chi zi
(虎独不吃子) which literally means "tiger solitary
does not eat
children. The character for "solitary" (独) and the character for
"poison" (毒) are both pronounced du.
When spoken, the proverb can thus be interpreted as "tiger poison does not eat children".
Tigers are frequently included on amulets of this type for this reason
and also because they see well in the dark and have the
ability to make evil spirits flee.
There is one final point worth noting about this charm. You will
notice that, unlike most charms, this particular charm is not
round. It is actually eight-sided.
This eight-sided shape is believed to enhance the effectiveness of the
charm because the number "8" (ba 八)
is a lucky number due to its similar pronunciation
in certain Chinese dialects to the word "prosper"
This charm has a diameter of 29 mm and a weight of 7.5 grams.
On the left is shown the reverse side of an amulet with the
and spider to the right, the snake at the bottom and a "three-legged
toad" to the
left of the center hole.
The animal at the top is a tiger.
sometimes put on amulets because they are
believed to have the ability to set evil spirits to flight and because
they see well in the dark.
Images of tigers (see Peach Charms)
effective in scaring away malignant spirits and protecting
While the reverse side of this piece is meant to protect, which is the
purpose of an amulet, the obverse side is more like a charm in that it
is meant to bring good luck.
The obverse side, shown at the left,
has the four Chinese characters fu
gui chang le (富贵昌乐) written in seal script and read top to
bottom and right to left.
The meaning is "riches and honor,
prosperity and happiness".
This charm has a diameter of 47.8 mm and weighs 25.9 grams.
This is the reverse side of another old Chinese five poison charm.
The large animal at the right is a tiger
or cat. To the right of
the cat's tail is a lizard and to the left is a spider. A snake
is at the left of the center hole and the three legged toad is at the
The inscription on the obverse
side of the charm is read top to bottom as qu xie jiang fu (驱邪降福)
as "Expel evil and send down good
At the very top of the charm is a spider.
spider is not one of the five poisons. When not
grouped with other members of the five poisons the spider is actually
auspicious symbol on its own. This is because another word for spider
in Chinese is xizi (虫喜 子) where the first
character has the same pronunciation as the word for "happy" (xi 喜).
of a spider dropping down is therefore a visual pun
for "happiness being sent down from the sky".
There is some disagreement as to the figure at the right. Some
say it is Liu Hai and others say it is Zhong Kui. For
a detailed discussion of Liu Hai, please see the above link. For
information on Zhong Kui, please see Daoist
Charms and Chinese
This charm has a diameter of 46 mm and a weight of 26.3 grams.
The charm at the left is very similar to the one above although the
person on the right appears to be different.
The inscription is qu xie
jiang fu (驱邪降福) meaning "expel evil and
send down good
This charm also has the spider,
"happiness", at the eleven o'clock position and the
three-legged toad at the bottom.
The images of the "five poisons" on the reverse side are the same as
those on the above charm although they are drawn a little differently
and are in a slightly different order.