China has historically admired government officials who displayed the highest degree of learning and moral integrity in their work.
At the left is a charm which honors such an official.
The inscription, written in a particular style of seal script to be discussed later, reads qing bai chuan jia (清白传家) which translates as “pureness handed down in the family”.
This inscription refers to Yang Zhen (样震 ?-124 AD) who was a government official during the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 AD).
Yang Zhen was known for his erudition and impeccable moral character.
There is a famous story concerning Yang Zhen told in Chinese as follows:
Yang Zhen was appointed the prefecture governor of Jingzhou (荆州刺史).
On the way to Jingzhou, he passed through Changyi prefecture (昌邑县).
An old friend by the name of Wang Mi (王密) came out late at night to meet him.
Yang Zhen had appointed Wang Mi as the Changyi prefecture head (昌邑县长).
Wang Mi wanted to thank his friend with a gift of ten catties (jin 斤) of gold.
Yang Zhen refused to accept the gold.
Yang Zhen said to Wang Mi, “This old friend knows you but why is it that you do not know your old friend?”
Wang Mi replied, “It is now the middle of the night, no one will know”.
Yang Zhen replied, “Heaven knows, the spirits know, I know and you know. How can you say that no one would know?”
Wang Mi departed feeling very ashamed.
Yang Zhen felt that an untarnished reputation would be the greatest legacy he could leave to his descendants.
This untarnished legacy has served as a rich inheritance for the Yang clan through the generations down to the present time.
In Chinese, the word “know” (zhi 知) is the same as the word “wisdom” (zhi 知).
The expression “Heaven knows, the spirits know, I know and you know” is known as the “Four Knows” or “Four Wisdoms” (si zhi 四知).
The Yang clan even today name their clan hall the “Hall of Four Wisdoms” (四知堂) as can seen in the image at the left.
Qing bai chuan jia charms have a very strong aesthetic appeal because the inscription is always written in a specific seal script style.
The calligraphy is known as “tadpole script” (ke dou wen 蝌蚪文 or ke dou shu 蝌蚪书).
Tadpole script, as you might guess, resembles tadpoles. As can be seen here with the character bai (白) in the inscription, the top (head) of the character tends to be large. The stroke then narrows so that the bottom (tail) of the character is very thin.
Tadpole script was developed after the Han dynasty (汉朝 206 BC – 220 AD).
At the time, the term “tadpole script” also referred to the script that had been used during the Zhou dynasty (周朝 c.1046 BC – 256 BC).
Tadpole script was short-lived, however, and by the time of the Tang dynasty (唐朝 618-907) was not frequently used.
These charms first appeared during the Song dynasty (宋朝 960-1279) and usually have a diameter of 62.5 mm, a thickness of 4 mm, and a weight of 62.9 grams. The specimen shown above, however, is unusually large with a diameter of about 90 mm.
This Chinese charm, with the distinctive tadpole script, serves as a testament to the qualities the ancient Chinese admired in a government official. Officials were expected to be well-versed in the classics and to display the highest moral character.
Please also see “Not Being Greedy is a Treasure” for a discussion of another charm with a similar theme.
For charms written in “Bird Worm Seal Script”, which is similar to “Tadpole Script”, please see “Chinese Charms and Bird-Worm Seal Script“.