The Chinese have a long history in regard to the quest for longevity.
Qin Shi Huang (259 BC – 210 BC), the first emperor of China, sent expeditions looking for the mystical Penglai Island, where the immortals lived, in his quest to obtain the elixir of life which would allow him to live forever.
His search for the elixir of immortality actually cost him his life. He died after eating pills meant to make him immortal but which were made from mercury.
While longevity was important to the Confucians because they believed that wisdom came with age, it was a primary pursuit of the Daoists because they, like Emperor Qin Shi Huang, wanted to become immortal and live forever.
For this reason, there is a large variety of Daoist charms relating to longevity.
As an example, here is a rubbing of an old Daoist longevity charm which is both unusual in its shape and not often found.
At the top center is a small hole from which the charm could be hung.
Shown at the right is an “immortal”. The “circle” surrounding the head designates the person as someone special in a manner similar to a “halo” found in Western paintings.
The Immortal is sitting under a pine tree. In the sky is a moon (larger circle beneath the hole) surrounded by clouds.
Immediately to the left of the “immortal” is a four-legged incense burner or cauldron on a stand.
To the left of the incense burner is a crane with an open mouth and at the extreme left corner is a tortoise.
The very bottom of the charm consists of leaves on a peach branch with a peach at the very center.
The symbols on this charm are all associated with “longevity”. The immortal, of course, is one who lives forever. The crane, tortoise, peach and pine tree are all symbols of longevity.
The cauldron or incense burner alludes to the Daoist quest to find the “elixir of immortality”. The Daoists believed in alchemy and the incense burner or cauldron symbolizes their attempt to make the “elixir of immortality” from cinnabar (mercury).
The “moon” is a reference to the story of the “Moon Hare” (“Jade Rabbit”) who pounds leaves of the cassia (cinnamon) tree with mortar and pestle in an attempt to make the “pill of immortality”.
The “peach” is the food of the immortals. It is associated with the Queen Mother of the West who had a peach orchard. Eating one of these peaches would allow a person to live 3,000 years.
The reverse side of the charm has a large character written in what is known as Daoist “magic writing” or “magic script”. Unfortunately, with the possible exception of Daoist priests, the meaning of these characters remain unknown.
However, this particular character is very similar to the character located to the left of the round hole on an old Daoist charm of mine. While the exact meaning of the character on my charm is unknown, it happens to be paired together with the Chinese character “chang” which means “long”. Again, it is unknown if this pairing has any relationship or not.
Daoist charms of this type first appeared during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) although later reproductions also exist.