According to legend, swords first
appeared in China
during the time (2497 BC - 2398 BC) of the mythical Yellow Emperor
Chi You (蚩尤) was a tribal leader who
against the Yellow Emperor. Ancient texts describe him as having
bull-shaped head made of copper with his forehead made of iron.
But, Chi You was a master blacksmith who smelted and forged the first
Chinese swords. According to an ancient text on Chinese legends (song luo mi 宋罗泌), Chi You
made the dagger-axe (ge 戈),
lance (mao 戈), halberd (ji 戟), long spear (qiu mao 酋矛) and tribal spear (yi mao 夷矛).
One of the most famous swordmakers in Chinese history was Ou Yezi (欧冶子)
who lived during the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC - 476 BC).
He lived near Longyuan in a mountainous area of the State of Yue.
This was considered an auspicious place to forge swords because it had
seven natural springs which resembled the seven star constellation
known as the Big Dipper.
Other famous swordmakers from the same time period were the husband and
wife team of Gan Jiang (干将) and Mo Ye (莫邪) who crafted swords for King
(阖闾) of Wu (514 BC - 496 BC). Gan Jiang was a
student of the master Ou Yezi. A pair of swords, one "male"
(yang 阳) and one "female" (yin 阴), were made for King Hele and
swords were named after the couple.
These legendary swords forged in a configuration of springs which
resembled the Big Dipper, together with the notion of yin
and yang, helped
establish the belief
that swords could not only be used in wars against human enemies but in
battles against demons and evil spirits, as well.
Starting about the time of the Liu Song
(420-479 AD) of the
Southern Dynasties, swords began to assume an expanded role as
instruments used in religious, especially Daoist
The ancient Daoist text "Daoist Rituals of the Mystery Cavern and
Treasure" (dongxuan lingbao daoxue
keyi 洞玄灵宝道学科仪) states that those who study Daoism must be able
outstanding swords capable of dispelling evil spirits.
In "Records of Knives and Swords" (daojian
lu 刀剑录), Tao Hongjing (陶弘景) (451-536), a founder of a Daoist
sect known as the Shangqing School (上清) during the Western Jin
Dynasty (西晋) and who also established a Daoist mountain retreat at
Maoshan, states that a true
Daoist, by absorbing the powerful luster of
a sword, is capable of driving away demons and healing illnesses.
For ritual purposes, swords made of peach
wood began to appear
following the Sui and Tang Dynasties because of the belief that peach
wood could drive away evil spirits and control ghosts.
This is because the Chinese word for
peach (tao 桃) has the same
pronunciation as the Chinese word for "flee" or "run
away" (tao 逃).
Since swords could provide protection from evil influences, their very
image soon became a powerful symbol that became popular for use on
The old amulet displayed above is a good example. Above the
square hole are two crossed swords. Tied to the swords are
fillets or ribbons
which the Chinese believe can enhance the powers of
the object to which they are tied.
One prominent characteristic of Chinese swords
was that their blades
were frequently engraved with an image of the Big Dipper (bei dou xing
北斗星) or Northern
Ladle Constellation. The Chinese usually refer to this star
constellation as the "Ladle".
The Big Dipper appears to rotate around the North
Star (beijixing 北极星) which is
seen as fixed and unmoving and, therefore, the center of the
universe. Sima Qian
(司马迁) (145 BC - 86 BC), China's most famous
described the Big Dipper as follows. The Big Dipper served as the
Emperor's chariot and
demonstrated his control of the four cardinal
points by revolving around the center (North Star). The Big
Dipper also keeps separate the yin
yang, maintains the balance of
the Five Elements, and
regulates the seasons and the calendar.
On swords and amulets the Big
Dipper is seen as a series
of seven dots (stars) connected by a zigzag line.
The symbol of the Big Dipper can be seen above the round hole on the
ancient amulet at the left. The first star on the left is at
eight o'clock position and the last star on the right is between the
two o'clock and three o'clock positions.
The amulet also displays two crossed swords superimposed over the Big
Unlike the swords shown on the amulet above, the swords here
do not have ribbons tied to them since they can draw on the Big Dipper
itself as an unlimited source of power.
However, most Chinese amulets with sword symbols usually only display
sword. Amulets with two swords are actually fairly uncommon.
The two sword symbol has its roots in the Gan Jiang and Mo Ye "yin and
yang" swords of the Spring and Autumn Period mentioned above.
the rise of religious Daoism during the Han Dynasty further
strengthened the belief that the sword was an effective weapon against
According to Daoist legend, Laozi, the author of the Dao De
appeared before Zhang
Daoling on "Crane Cry Mountain" (hemingshan 鹤鸣山) in
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. Laozi gave Zhang Daoling two
swords, one male (yang) and
the other female (yin), in
order to carry out the mandate.
Zhang Daoling then proceeded to establish one of the major Daoist
religious sects, known as "Five Bushels of Rice"
("FivePecks of Rice" or Wudou Mi
There is also the belief that two swords represent two dragons.
According to the "Biography of Zhang Hua" in the "Book of Jin"
(晋书·张华传) compiled in 648 AD, Lei Huan (雷焕) obtained two swords
in Fengcheng (丰城). He kept one sword and gave the other to his son Lei
Hua (雷华). Later on, Lei Huan died. One day Lei Hua was carrying
his sword while crossing the Yanping Ford (延平津) when the sword suddenly
jumped out of its scabbard and sank into the river. Lei Hua
ordered a servant to dive into the river and recover the sword.
But under the water, the servant only saw two coiled and entwined
The pearl, which is frequently
shown "flaming" as is the case here, is one of the Eight Treasures and
therefore tends to enhance the value of an object.
The pearl is also seen as a symbol of perfection and enlightenment.
The pearl also closely resembles the moon. The various stages of
the dragon devouring and disgorging the pearl can represent the waning
and waxing of the moon and thus the endless cycle of transformation.
The coin sword consists of one or two iron rods as a foundation with
real Chinese "cash" coins ingeniously fastened with string, cord or
wire which should be red
A typical coin sword is about 2 feet (0.6 meter) long and consists of
ancient bronze coins.
It is usually considered
better for all the coins to have been cast during the reign of a single
Most of the cash coins used to make this sword are from the reign of
Emperor Gao Zong who ruled during the years 1736-1795 of the Qing
The inscription on these coins is qian
long tong bao (乾隆通宝) and an example of a qian long tong bao coin is shown at
the left for reference.
However, coins cast during the reign of Emperor Sheng Zu, who ruled
during the years 1662-1722 of the Qing Dynasty, are considered to be
the most effective for use in a coin sword because his reign lasted an
entire sixty-year cycle of the Chinese calendar and thus represents
The inscription on coins produced during the reign of Emperor Sheng Zu
have the inscription kang xi tong bao
(康熙通宝) and an example of this coin is displayed
at the left.
Coin swords are frequently hung above the bed. For "feng
shui" (风水) purposes, coin swords are hung on walls or above
windows. It is believed that evil spirits would not dare molest
the residents of the house because the sword resembles that wielded by
Zhong Kui, the Daoist Immortal who is famous
for being a slayer of evil
The Chinese actually have several persons closely associated with
fighting demons and evil influences with magical swords.
A few are considered immortals or gods and can be easily identified by
certain characteristics of dress or other symbols.
Sometimes, however, it is not clear who the swordsmen actually are.
For example, the amulet at the left shows four warriors. The
warriors to the right and left of the square hole are brandishing
The fighters above and below the square hole appear to be wielding
other types of weapons.
This is another amulet based on an actual ancient Chinese coin.
The obverse side (not shown) has the inscription wu
(五行大布) which translates as "large coin of the
five elements". Authentic coins were cast in the year 574 AD
during the reign of Emperor Wu of the Northern Zhou Dynasty.
The ancient Chinese believed that all of nature consisted
of Five Elements: metal, wood,
water, fire and water.
The reverse side, which is shown here, has a similar set of symbols as
the amulet above. On the right is a sword, on the left is the Big
Dipper, at the top is a coiled snake and at the bottom is a tortoise.
You may have noticed that the two amulets described above include
the tortoise and the snake.
The tortoise and the snake, frequently shown with the tortoise coiled
around the tortoise, is an ancient symbol representing Xuanwu.
During the centuries following the Han Dynasty, Xuanwu gradually
evolved into the popular Daoist god Zhenwu
who is known as the
Perfected Warrior and is associated with protection and healing.
The figure holding a sword across his chest on this amulet is
Zhenwu. We know he is Zhenwu because he is standing on a tortoise
and a snake.
The two amulets with the two crossed
swords shown at the top of this
also show a tortoise entwined by a snake which symbolize Zhenwu, the
As has been seen, the sword is a powerful symbol used to slay evil
spirits and is closely associated with Daoism.
The lock charm at the left displays a sword wrapped in a fillet or
The three-character inscription across the middle says da mao shan
(大茅山) which translates as "the great (Mount) Maoshan".
Mount Maoshan, located
in Jiangsu Province, has historically
been a major center of Daoism with many temples and
many eminent Daoist priests. It is here where Tao
Hongjing (陶弘景), mentioned above as the founder of the Shangqing
A discussion of swords and Chinese gods would not be complete without
mentioning Guan Di (关帝), also known as
Guan Gong (关公), who is the God
War. Originally a beancurd
seller, he joined forces with Liu Bei during the Three Kingdoms
(220-280 AD) and became immortalized as a military hero. He is
now a god that fights evil with a large broadsword. There
(Ch'ing) Dynasty coin that many believe provides protection from
because one of the Manchu characters in its inscription resembles the
broadsword carried by the God of War.
Other edged weapons are sometimes seen on old Chinese pieces.
For example, ancient Chinese chess pieces may display a warrior holding
an edged weapon as illustrated here. More information can be
found at Old Chinese Chess Pieces.
A charm displaying the blade weapons used by the Boxers during the
Boxer Rebellion is discussed in detail at Safe Journey Charm.
Finally, sometimes it is not necessary to use real swords, "coin
swords" or even the image of swords as seen on amulets to obtain
protection from demons. China has a plant known as calamus (chang pu 菖蒲) which is commonly
referred to as "sweet
flag". The leaves of this plant are long and stiff and resemble
swords. For this reason, the Chinese like to hang "sweet flag"
leaves above gates and doors, especially during the fifth day of the fifth month, to offer
protection from evil spirits, disease and misfortune.