"Yin Yang" and the "Five Elements" as
the Basis for Star, Moon,
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
and "moons", 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
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
According to old Chinese texts, the Chinese character for "star" (xing 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.
as a form of money, represent power and the ancient Chinese believed
the key function of a coin was to be distributed or circulated.
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
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
(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
Just as the Chinese character for "star" (xing 星) had
a second meaning of
spreading out, the Chinese character for "spring" (quan 泉),
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
should freely circulate like flowing water.
Finally, in regard to dragons (long
龙), the ancient texts state that the dragon
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