known as "open-work" money. In Chinese, lou kong qian (镂空钱) actually means
"hollowed out" money. These charms are also known as ling long qian (玲珑钱) or "elegant"
"Hollowed Out" Money
These are charms that have irregular shaped "openings" or
between their exquisite design elements. They are round and
almost always have a round hole in the center. Open work charms
with scenes of buildings such as temples, however, tend to have square
holes in the middle.
Open work charms are almost purely pictorial and only a very few
include any Chinese characters or inscription. The picture on one
side is the same as that on the other side, only reversed. Therefore,
only one side of each charm is displayed below.
Chinese open work charms made their first appearance during the Han
Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) although many of the specimens from that time
may have actually been small pieces taken from other metal utensils.
Open work charms became very popular and were often worn for personal
adornment during the Song (960 -1279 AD), Yuan (1271 - 1368 AD) and
Ming (1368 - 1644 AD) dynasties. Their popularity, however,
seemed to wane somewhat during the Qing (Ch'ing) Dynasty (1644 - 1911
Compared to most other types of Chinese charms, open work pieces tend
to be larger in size with more made of bronze than brass.
Categories of Open Work Charms
There are four basic categories of open
category includes those animals much beloved to the Chinese with the
dragon and phoenix being the most
prominent. Also included in
this group would be fish, deer, lion, tiger, rabbit, bat, birds, crane,
horse and the Chinese unicorn or
A second category depicts immortals, such as the Queen Mother of the West (xi wang mu 西
王母), as well as ordinary people,
especially those involved in fishing
and hunting. Fu Xi (伏羲), the ancient mythic ruler traditionally
credited with establishing the fundamental principles of the Book of
Changes (I Ching 易经), gave humanity the skills of animal husbandry and
fishing with nets. During the Han Dynasty, when charms first
started to appear, fishing and hunting and other daily life scenes were
painted on bricks and these popular artistic forms were carried over
into the creation of open-work charms. (For additional
information concerning Fu Xi and the Book of Changes (I
Ching) please refer to The Book of Changes and
Also included in this category are some fairly scarce open work charms
illustrating examples of Confucian filial
A third category displays climbing vines, peach blossoms, lotus and
peony. To the Chinese, these vines and plants carry hidden
meanings in addition to their high artistic value. There is an
interesting legend, dating from the Tang Dynasty, that I relate
along with images of peony open work charms. If you have further
interest in Chinese charms and their symbolism, please also see the hidden meaning of Chinese charm symbols.
A fourth category includes scenes of
buildings such as temples.
Most of these open work charms are believed to have been cast in Dali
(大理) in Yunnan (云南)
during the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 AD).
This is an interesting old charm depicting an immortal and several
"good luck" animals.
At the left is the Queen
Mother of the West (xi wang mu
西王母). She is holding a ruyi (如意)
sceptre which extends from her hand to the 10 o'clock position on the
On the right side of the charm is a deer.
A tortoise is at the very bottom of the charm at the 6 o'clock position.
There is an "auspicious cloud" located just above the tortoise and
below the round center hole.
Above the center hole is a crane. The crane's beak is touching
the center hole at the 11 o'clock position and the tips of the two
wings are at the 12 o'clock and 1 o'clock positions of the outside rim.
The Queen Mother of the West (xiwangmu 西王母)
is associated with longevity because eating a peach from her orchard would
allow a person to live for 3,000 years.
The deer is believed to live a
long life and is, therefore, a symbol of longevity. The Chinese
word for "deer" (lu
鹿) is pronounced the same as the Chinese
character 禄 (lu)
salary of a government official.
The deer thus also signifies wealth and good fortune.
The tortoise (gui 龟) is
another natural symbol for a long life.
The cloud (yun 云),
祥云), symbolizes "good luck" because it has the
same pronunciation as the Chinese word for "luck" or "fortune" (yun
The crane (he 鹤) is yet another ancient
Chinese symbol for longevity.
This charm is therefore expressing the desire for a long life with the
wealth and good fortune that accompanies being appointed to a high
government position. The ruyi (如意) sceptre
The diameter of this open work charm is 54 mm and the weight is 31.5
is an example of an ancient open work charm showing a man
man is on the right with the fish on the left.
The fish symbolizes prosperity
because the Chinese word for fish (yu
鱼) is a pun for "abundance"
or "well-to-do" (yu
余 or yu 裕).
The fish also alludes to an allegory of a carp fish leaping over the
Dragon Gate to become
鲤鱼跳龙门) which illustrates that
persistent efforts are needed to overcome obstacles as in the case of
those who wish to move up the ranks as officials in the imperial
examination system. (Please see fish charms
There is still another interpretation of the meaning of this
charm. The human figure may actually be a woman. The
Chinese word for woman (fu 妇)
has the same pronunciation as the word "wealth" (fu 富). Since the word "fish"
sounds like "abundance", the hidden meaning of the picture is an
abundance of wealth.
Also, in the folk art of the Miao people of Southern China, the fish
diameter of this charm is 53 mm.
This is a most unusual and rarely seen charm.
The charm shows two people with one to the left and one to the right of the round hole.
At the very bottom of the charm is a fish with its head at the right and tail at the left.
Traditionally, this charm was believed to portray a daily scene of people working with the hope of becoming prosperous.
But if you look closely, the two people actually appear to be warriors
fighting with their fists. While it is difficult to see in this
image, there is also a small battle shield at the top of the charm
between the two heads.
The fish, in this case, symbolizes a river where a battle is taking place.
The scene is now believed by some experts to represent the war known as the Chu-Han Contention (chu han xiang zhen 楚汉相争) which took place during the years 206 BC to 202 BC between the armies of Chu (楚) and Han (汉) following the collapse of the Qin Dynasty.
Xiang Yu (项羽), the Hegemon-King of Western Chu (xi chu ba wang 西楚霸王), and Liu Bang (刘邦), the leader of Han, fought a decisive battle by the Wu River (乌江) in 202 BC.
Xiang Yu was defeated and, rather than returning home in disgrace, committed suicide by cutting his throat near the river.
Liu Bang then proceeded to establish himself as Emperor Gaozu (高祖), the first emperor of the Han Dynasty.
This charm has a diameter of 42 mm and a weight of 17.6 grams.
This is an ancient Chinese charm with a Confucian filial piety theme.
Filial piety refers to the
respect of a child for his
The charm displays four stories from "The
二十四孝) which is one of the most famous
collections of stories concerning how children displayed filial piety.
For an interesting discussion of this charm please see Confucian Charms.
The charm is 59 mm in diameter.
This charm is a pictorial
representation of the ancient Chinese saying hua qian yue xia (花前月下) which
literally translates as "in front of the flowers and under the moon".
The scene illustrates a young couple falling in love in the
moonlight among flowers.
On the left is a man standing and pointing with his left hand at the
If you look carefully, you will see a crescent moon exactly at the 12
o'clock position with curly-shaped clouds
just below and to the sides.
Standing on the right is a young woman with flowers shown both above
and below the circular hole.
This type of charm was cast in ancient times in the city of Dali in
To see other charms relating to love, sex, and marriage, please visit Chinese Marriage Charms.
This charm has a diameter of 47 mm and a weight of 21.7 grams.
Dragon Open Work Charms
The dragon is often the
theme of open work charms with the vast
majority of dragon charms depicting two dragons.
Charms with a single dragon are not frequently seen.
This is a very nice example of an old open work charm with one dragon.
The dragon is facing left with its head located just to the left of
The dragon's neck assumes an "S" shape extending toward the bottom of
the charm where the body then coils upward and over the head.
This is a very large and heavy charm. The diameter is 66 mm and
the weight is 64.2 grams.
This is an
example of a double dragon open-work charm with one dragon each on the
right and left. The dragon on the right (head at the one o'clock
position) appears to be chasing the tail of the other (head at the
seven o'clock position) in a counter-clockwise direction around the
There is a small flower in the area (twelve and six o'clock positions)
between each head and tail.
The charm is 53 mm in diameter and weighs 25.9 grams.
This is another double dragon open work charm.
To make viewing easier, I have rotated the charm so that one of the
dragons is on the top and one is on the bottom.
The head of the top dragon is at the one o'clock position. The
two round dots are the eyes and the two horns are pointing to the top
of the charm. The body extends counter-clockwise and a
leg can be clearly seen with the claw resting at the eleven o'clock
position on the central hole.
This charm has a diameter of 52 mm and a weight of 20.1 grams.
old open-work charm shows considerable wear but also displays two
one on the right and one on the left. The dragon on the left
(head at the eleven o'clock position) is chasing the tail of the dragon
on the right (head at five o'clock position) in a clockwise direction.
The diameter is 55 mm and the weight is 30.2 grams.
This is a very old two dragon open work charm which probably even
predates the above charm.
The diameter is 54 mm and the weight is 28.3 grams.
This is another example of an old two dragon charm with a
beautiful patina. The head of the dragon on the left side is at
the eleven o'clock position. Its right eye is the brown dot and
its mouth is open. The head of the dragon on the right side is at
the five o'clock position.
One dragon is chasing the other in a clockwise rotation.
This is a smaller charm with a diameter of 41 mm and a weight of 10.2
This open work charm is different and much less common than the
above dragon charms.
In this case, the two heads of the dragons are facing each other
nose-to-nose just below the circular hole with the two tails meeting at
the very top of the charm.
Just below the two heads is a round dot representing a pearl.
For reasons which are still unknown, very few double dragon charms were
cast with the dragons facing each other. The vast majority of
charms of this type have one dragon chasing the tail of the other.
This charm has a diameter of 54.2 mm and a weight of 25.9 grams.
Lion Open Work Charm
The lion is seen as a brave and
intelligent animal and, therefore, has come to symbolize power and
The open work charm at the left displays a pair of lions playing with a
"treasure" (shuang shi xi bao
The "treasure", located at the right of the center hole, is a
Chinese cash coin which is round with a square hole in the middle.
One lion is just below and looking directly at the "coin". The
other lion is upside-down with its head at the ten o'clock position.
However, the lion has an even deeper symbolic meaning because the
for lion (shi
狮) has the same pronunciation as the word for "teacher" or
Beginning as early as the the Western Zhou Dynasty (11th
century BC - 771 BC), the highest civil official was the "Senior Grand
Tutor" (tai shi 太师), also known as the
"Grand Preceptor" or "Grand Secretary"
And beginning in the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC - 476 BC), the
of Chu (楚国) had a senior government office known as the
"Junior Preceptor" (shao shi
A pair of lions (shi 狮)
these two high government positions (shi
"treasure" coin (bao 宝)
remuneration or salary.
This Chinese charm thus expresses the wish that
position and wealth will be handed down from generation to generation.
This lion charm has a diameter of 44 mm and a weight of 13.4 grams.
Phoenix Open Work Charm
While open work charms displaying dragons are fairly common, there
seems to be far fewer displaying the Chinese phoenix.
The mythical bird we commonly call the "Chinese phoenix" is actually
the fenghuang (凤凰) in
Chinese. The fenghuang
does not symbolize a
bird that rose from ashes as is the case with the "phoenix" known in
the West. The Chinese phoenix instead represents joy and
peace. The phoenix is the yin
counterpart to the dragon.
happy and harmonious union of a man and woman. For
more information on the symbolism please see the Hidden Meaning of Chinese Charms.
This very attractive double phoenix bronze charm has one phoenix on the
left and another, which is upside down, on the right.
Regarding the phoenix on the left, the head is at the top of the charm
with the beak just touching the hole at the upper right.
The body is shaped like an "s" and the neck and breast appear to have
tiny scales. One feathered wing extends to the nine o'clock
position while the other wing extends above the upper part of the hole
in the middle of the charm.
Four long tail feathers can be seen. The Chinese believe that
even numbers are yin (female)
and odd numbers are yang
The phoenix on the right is depicted exactly the same but is upside
down with the beak just below the hole at the lower right and with the
head at the five o'clock position.
This is a robust charm. It is almost 58 mm in diameter, about 3.5
mm in thickness, and quite heavy.
Peacock Open Work Charm
There is a difference of opinion
regarding which bird is depicted on this charm. Some references
say that it is the Chinese
phoenix. Other texts state that it is
Those arguing that it is the phoenix, however, fail to explain why most
of the field of the charm is covered with interlocking eye-like swirls
such as found on the spectacular tail of the peacock.
Since most phoenix charms depict the tail as long flowing tail
as in the example above, I believe the stronger case is for the peacock.
There are actually a pair of peacocks depicted on the charm.
As seen in the view to the left, there is one peacock, upside-down and
facing to the right, at the top of the charm. The other peacock
at the bottom and facing left.
Because of the wear on the charm, I
have outlined the body of one peacock in red to make it more
obvious. The head is facing left with one wing pointed
straight up and the other wing extended toward the bottom of the charm.
The two legs can be seen just below the peacock's body.
With wings extended, it is as if the pair of peacocks are preparing to
The enormous tail of the bottom peacock, highlighted by the many
swirls, covers the entire right field of the charm to about the one
o'clock position where the head of the other peacock is located.
The tail of the top peacock envelopes the left field of the charm.
It is interesting that the design of the charm intimately connects the
pair of peacocks by means of the tail feathers which resemble the
Chinese mudan (牡丹)
flower, also known as the
tree peony, and vines.
To the Chinese, the peacock represents beauty and dignity,
desire for peace and prosperity.
Similarly, the mudan symbolizes loyalty, happiness and eternal beauty.
The tree peony is also known in Chinese as fuguihua (富贵花),
of wealth and honor", and therefore expresses the hope for
prosperity and official position.
The hidden or implied meaning of this charm is that a pair
peacocks are a devoted couple which fly side by side in the heavens and
are like flowers with interlocked branches on earth. The pair
mutual affection between lovers.
In ancient times, there was also the belief that one glance
from a peacock could make a woman pregnant.
Xi Wang Mu (西王母),
rode a peacock as
a means of transportation instead of a stork. (Please see Chinese Peach Charms for
more on the Queen
Mother of the West.)
These charms are generally believed to have been cast in the southern
province of Yunnan during the Song (960-1279 AD) and Jin (1115-1234 AD)
The peacock is indigenous to the rain forests of Yunnan Province and
traditionally been an inspirational source for the arts and dance of
such ethnic minorities as the Dai people.
This charm has a diameter of 56.5 mm.
Chinese Unicorn Open Work
This very beautiful open work charm shows a "Chinese unicorn" or qilin (麒麟) on the left and a
phoenix (?) on the right.
The qilin is a mythical
animal. "Chinese unicorn" is really a misnomer because the qilin has two horns not one.
In this particular example, the qilin's
two front legs are touching the
outside rim at the 9-10 o'clock position with the rear legs shown
together and touching the rim at the 7 o'clock position. The head
is looking back with the mouth touching the central round hole.
The eye happens to be highlighted with patina and the two horns can be
seen at about the 11 o'clock position touching the outside rim.
Other typical characteristics of the qilin
can also be observed such as
the dragon-shaped head and the scaled deer-like body. The qilin
can be differentiated from the deer because the qilin has a large bushy
tail as can be seen here.
unicorn" or qilin
represents good luck, prosperity, goodwill and benevolence.
diameter of the charm is 53 mm and the weight is 25.5 grams.
Bat Open Work Charm
A bat (fu 蝠) is
fortune" or happiness (fu 福)
because both characters share the same pronunciation fu.
At the left is an old Chinese charm displaying five bats.
At the very center of the charm is a large and very stylized
Chinese character (壽) pronounced shou which means
This particular design of having five bats surrounding the Chinese
character shou (壽)
became quite popular during the Ming and Qing Dynasties and is
as wu fu
or "five fortunes surround longevity".
The "five bats" symbolize the "Five
as the "Five Happinesses" or "Five Good Fortunes". The "five
longevity (寿), wealth (富), health and
composure (康宁), virtue (修好德), and the desire to die a natural death in
old age (考
This large charm has a diameter of 71 mm.
This is a very nice example of an old lotus open work charm.
In Buddhism, the lotus
represents purity and detachment from
worldly cares because of the dignified manner in which it emerges from
the muck of a pond.
In Chinese, lotus
is lianhua (莲花) or hehua (荷花). Lian is also the pronunciation for
"continuous" (连) and he
is also the pronunciation for "harmony" (和). The lotus,
therefore, has the
hidden meaning of "continuous harmony".
The top of the charm depicts a lotus pod with seeds. Lotus seeds (lianzi 莲
籽) have the hidden meaning of "continuous birth of children" because,
as mentioned above, lian
"continuous" and the zi has
the same pronunciation as "son" or "child" (zi 子).
The charm measures 60 mm in diameter.
Flower and Vine Open Work Charms
This is an example of an open work charm showing climbing vines.
It is clearly old with a very nice patina and is thinner and more
delicate than my other open work charms. A small piece is missing
at the very bottom.
The charm has a diameter of 53 mm and weighs 19 grams.
This is an example of an open work
charm displaying four flowers. The flower is the tree peony or mudan (牡丹) in Chinese.
The peony has a long and fabled history in China.
One legend describes how Wu Zetian, the only Empress (690 -705 AD) of
the Tang Dynasty, was drinking one day during the winter in the
Imperial Flower Garden. While admiring the snow, she was also
captivated by the fragrance of the winter flowers that were in
bloom. She wrote a poem and sent it to the god in charge of
flowers. The poem said that she would visit the garden again the
next day and that all
the flowers were to bloom and not wait until spring. The next
morning hundreds of flowers were in bloom. But, the peony
stubbornly disobeyed the order and refused to bloom. The Empress
was enraged and gave orders that all the peonies in the capital city of
Chang'an were to be
banished. Those tree peonies that refused were burned to the
From that time on, the peony gained a reputation for resistance and
As time passed, however, the peony's reputation softened and gradually
changed to one symbolizing longevity, loyalty, happiness and eternal
beauty. Also, because of the way the flowers sometimes grow as
doubles, they appear to the Chinese as strings of coins and, therefore,
have also come to symbolize prosperity and wealth.
diameter of this charm is 52 mm and the weight is 30 grams.
This is another charm from my collection displaying two mudan flowers.
The diameter is 47 mm and the weight is 27.6 grams.
This is a variation of
a four flower open work charm.
The diameter is 60 mm.
This is another example of a
flower or vine open-work charm.
The diameter is 59 mm and the weight is 32.8 grams.
The flower open work charm at the left is unusual because it
depicts a boy standing on the top.
The lower portion of the charm displays images of the mudan, plum,
lotus and chrysanthemum.
For a very detailed discussion of this charm please visit Chinese Boy Charms.
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Charms and Coins