Swords and Amulets
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 died
fighting against the Yellow Emperor. Ancient texts
describe him as having a 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).
Some of the edged weapons he invented can be seen in a rubbing
from a Han
Dynasty stone carving of Chi You at the left.
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
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 Hele (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 the two 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 Dynasty (刘宋) (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 Numinous Treasure" (dongxuan
lingbao daoxue keyi 洞玄灵宝道学科仪) states that those who
study Daoism must be able to cast 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
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
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 amulets.
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
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 ancient
historian, 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 and yang,
maintains the balance of the Five Elements, and
regulates the seasons and the calendar.
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 about the eight o'clock position and the last star
on the right is between the two o'clock and three o'clock
The amulet also displays two crossed swords superimposed over
the Big Dipper.
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 one sword. Amulets with two swords are actually
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. But, the rise of religious Daoism
during the Han Dynasty further strengthened the belief that
the sword was an effective weapon against demons.
According to Daoist legend, Laozi, the author of the
Dao De Jing, 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" ("Five Pecks
of Rice" or Wudou Mi Dao
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 dragons.
One of the most popular
traditional Chinese art themes has two dragons
chasing a pearl.
At the left is the pommel of an old Chinese sword with this
motif that was discovered in an imperial tomb near Luoyang
(洛阳) which is an ancient capital city located in Henan
The sword is believed to date from about 600 AD and is in the
collection of the
Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The pearl, which is
frequently shown "flaming" as is the case here, is one of the
and therefore tends to enhance the value of an object.
The pearl is also seen as a symbol of perfection and
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.
True Chinese charms
and amulets did not begin to appear until sometime during
the Han Dynasty and the sword, or pair of swords, as
objects invested with power became frequently seen symbols
from this time on.
The sword's magical power to drive away evil
can also be seen in the uniquely Chinese "coin sword".
At the left is an old example of a coin sword which is in the
collection of the British Museum.
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 in
A typical coin sword is about 2 feet (0.6 meter) long and
consists of around 100 ancient bronze coins.
usually considered better for all the coins to have been cast
during the reign of a single emperor.
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 (Ch'ing) Dynasty.
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
(Qian long tong bao coins were also used to make a
"coin dragon" honoring the Qianlong Emperor (Emperor Gaozong)
at the Forbidden City. Please see an interesting
discussion of this dragon made of coins at Coin
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 "longevity".
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 demons.
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
Sometimes, however, it is not clear who the swordsmen actually
For example, the amulet at the left shows four warriors.
The warriors to the right and left of the square hole are
The fighters above and below the square hole appear to be
wielding other types of weapons.
is an enlarged image from a Chinese zodiac amulet
showing an unknown deity with a sword.
The inscription on the left side of the charm is chiling (敕令) which
translates as "imperial order" or "edict".
The inscriptions on some amulets resembled official imperial
documents. A command or edict issued by the
emperor or a deified "high official" carried absolute
In this case, the "edict" would be understood as to provide
protection and to kill the evil spirits.
This type of "command" or "order" was frequently seen on old Daoist amulets
where the "high official" was Laozi or the "God of Thunder".
On the other hand, the fierce warrior with the
heavy beard brandishing the sword in his right hand on
this amulet can only be Zhong
Zhong Kui is a fearsome slayer of evil demons. The
projections on each side of his hat are "demon-seeking"
devices that point at unseen dangers.
Besides his physcial appearance, we know he is Zhong Kui
because of the bat that is flying upside-down near the rim
at the eleven o'clock position.
The bat is a symbol closely associated with Zhong Kui.
The Chinese inscription is qu xie jiang fu (
降福) meaning "Expel evil and send down good fortune
This amulet displays one of the Eight Daoist
Lu Dongbin is holding his
famous devil-slaying sword in his left hand.
As can be seen, the weapon is a traditional Chinese
double-edged straight sword know as a jian (剑).
The whisk in his
right hand, which allows him to walk on clouds or fly, helps
The Chinese legend is zhu shen hui bi (诸神回避) which translates as
"evade all the spirits".
The characteristics of
the Chinese language combined with the authority of the
emperor has sometimes resulted in certain ancient Chinese
coins being perceived as having with special mythical powers.
The "Large Coin Fifty" (da quan wu shi 大泉五十) cast during the reign
of Wang Mang (7-23
AD) is one such coin.
This is an amulet but it
is based on the "Large Coin Fifty" and its obverse side
(not shown) is identical to the authentic coin.
The symbols on the reverse side include a sword to the left of
the square hole and the seven-star Big Dipper below the hole.
A snake is to the
right of the hole and a tortoise is above.
This is another amulet based on an actual ancient Chinese
The obverse side (not shown) has the inscription wu xing da bu
(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
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
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 page 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 ribbon.
The three-character inscription across the middle says da mao shan (大茅山) which
translates as "the great (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 Sect, established
his mountain retreat.
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 of 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 evil because one of the Manchu characters in
its inscription resembles the broadsword carried by the God of
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.
The Chinese halberd
is also used as a symbol with a special meaning on Chinese
charms. For a detailed discussion please see the
following charms: "May
your happiness be according to your wishes";
wealthy according to your wishes"
wealth and honor and may gold and silver fill
A charm displaying the blade weapons used by the Boxers
during the Boxer Rebellion is discussed in detail at Safe Journey
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.
Return to Ancient
Charms and Coins