"Yin Yang" and the "Five
Elements" as the Basis for Star, Moon, Cloud, and Dragon
Symbols on Ancient Chinese Coins and Charms
Symbols began to appear on certain Chinese coins starting
about 2,000 years ago. At first, these were very simple
symbols such as raised dots and raised crescent-shaped lines.
The Chinese refer to these as "stars"
respectively. The symbols gradually became a little more
complex and and began to include irregular round-shaped forms,
known as "clouds" or
"auspicious clouds". Finally, wiggly lines became known
as "dragons" such as
can be seen on the old Chinese charm on the left. You
can see more examples of old charms with stars, moons and
clouds at Emergence of Chinese
Charms and Ancient Chinese
Coins with Charm Features.
Explanation for the Moon Symbol
There have been a number of theories as to the meaning of
these symbols and as to why they appeared on Chinese
coins For example, the most popular explanation for the
appearance of "moons" was that they were made by a person
(usually said to be an Empress or some other famous personage)
impressing their fingernail into the clay coin mold before it
had dried. This would be similar to what famous actors
and actresses of today do when they impress their hands in wet
concrete in front of what was formerly the Grauman's
(Grumman's) Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.
Another Meaning of the Chinese
Character for "Star"
According to old Chinese texts, the Chinese character for
星) not only referred to the lights in the
night sky but also had the meaning of 布 (bu) which meant to spread or
disseminate. Other ancient texts gave the meaning of
star as 散 (san) which
had the similar meaning to distribute or to give out.
Coins, as a form of money, represent power and the ancient
Chinese believed the key function of a coin was to be
distributed or circulated. The implied meaning of the
star symbol, therefore, is that Chinese coins should be like
the star-studded sky, widespread, numerous and distributed
throughout the world.
Chinese Belief in Yin Yang and the
Five Elements as the Basis for Charm Symbols
There is a less well-known theory for the appearance of
these star, moon, cloud and dragon symbols specifically on old
Chinese coins. I find this theory more convincing
because it is consistent with the philosophy and religious
beliefs that existed in China at the time.
The ancient Chinese relied on Yin Yang (阴阳) and the Five Elements (wu xing 五行) to explain
all that was on earth and the structure of the universe.
They believed that all of nature consisted of these Five
Elements, namely metal (jin 金), wood (mu 木), water (shui 水), fire (huo 火) and earth (tu 土).
To continue our examination for the appearance of moons,
clouds and dragons on old Chinese coins, we need to look more
closely at the meaning of the element water (shui 水).
Just as the Chinese character for "star" (xing 星) had
second meaning of spreading out, the Chinese character for
泉), as in a source of water
issuing from the ground, had another meaning. In ancient times
this Chinese character referred to a coin!
Going further with the analogy of water, the old texts
explained that the moon (yue
月) was a messenger or
envoy from the heavens. Water was the accumulated cold
air of the Yin (阴)
and these vapors originated with the moon. The moon was
the essence of water and was the spirit in charge of
water. Therefore, the extended meaning of a "moon" on
ancient Chinese coins was that money should circulate just
like the flowing, gushing and rising waters.
The use of "clouds" (yun
云), sometimes referred to as "auspicious clouds" (xiangyun 祥云), is also
tied to the water element. The ancient Chinese texts
state that clouds are rain water. The master of the
clouds is also the master of rain (yu 雨). The Book of Changes or I Ching
(please see The Book of Changes and
Bagua Charms) states that the second of the bagua (八卦) is
kan (坎), which is
water, and that it exists in the heavens as clouds. The
extended meaning of clouds is thus consistent with the
reference to the moon in that money should freely circulate
like flowing water.
Finally, in regard to dragons (long 龙), the ancient texts state that the
dragon is a water animal and that it is the dragon that sends
the rain. The dragon was believed to exhale the wind and
summon the rain. It was the spirit that was the master
of water. The symbol of dragons would eventually evolve
to refer to the emperor and the power of the central
government. But, in its earliest depictions on Chinese
coins and charms, the wiggly-line symbol of the dragon was yet
another reference to the ancient belief that coins are meant
to circulate freely like stars and water.
The appearance of the star, moon, cloud and dragon symbols on
ancient Chinese coins and charms did not happen by
accident. Their appearance was a manifestation of the
fundamental belief of the Chinese of the time in Yin Yang and
the Five Elements.
Additional Resource for
Chinese Charm Symbols and Meanings
If you are interested in more information concerning
symbols on Chinese charms, please see the comprehensive list
of symbols with explanation of their meanings at Chinese Charms -- Hidden Meaning
Return to Ancient
Chinese Charms and Coins