The major evolution and development of Chinese charms occurred during the period from the Six Dynasties (220 – 586 AD) to the Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368 AD). During this time, wordings on charms to wish for “happiness” and “longevity” became more common and widespread. Charms with Buddhist and Taoist sayings also appeared as did charms for marriage. These charms were now being made from such various materials as gold, silver, bronze, iron, tin, lead, jade, porcelain and paper. The styles of calligraphy also evolved from the Han script to the regular style, grass style, seal style and “Taoist magic symbol” style.
Most of the charms cast during the period from the beginning of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE) to the end of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (581 AD) were very similar to coins in circulation at that time or similar to coins of the not distant dynasties. What differentiated them was that simple symbols were added to the reverse side of the charms. These symbols included the sun, moon, stars, the tortoise, the snake, and the double-edged sword. Sometimes, depictions of people and the animals of the Chinese zodiac were placed on the back of the charm. The obverse side of these charms resembled the coins in circulation at the time such as da quan wu shi (大泉五十), wu xing da bu (五行大布), yong tong wan guo (永通万国), and chang ping wu zhu (常平五铢). As an example, wu xing da bu (五行大布) charm which, on the reverse side, has the snake above, the tortoise below, the double-edged sword to the right and the seven-star (Big Dipper) constellation to the left of the square hole.
There was a major shift to the casting of open-work charms during the Tang (618 – 907 AD) and Song (960 – 1279 AD) Dynasties. The themes of these open-work charms included flowers and plants, insects, fish, dragons, the phoenix, Chinese unicorn or qilin (kirin in Japanese), deer, horse, and figures of persons. Most of the open-work charms of this period were used for ornamentation such as for dress and personal adornment, accessories for horses, etc.
It was also during this time that charms with auspicious sayings on the obverse side, such as changming fugui (长命富贵), were making their appearance. The reverse side of the charms showed various pictures reflecting the Taoist (Daoist) influences, the bagua, and the twelve animals of the zodiac.
The twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, representing the Twelve Earthly Branches (十二肖), were used to designate hours, days, months and years. These animals include the Rat, Ox, Tiger, Hare, Dragon, Serpent, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Cock, Dog and Pig.
Charms with inscriptions such as fu de chang shou (福德长寿) and qian qiu wan sui (千秋万岁) were first cast at the end of the Northern Dynasties and then continued right through the Liao, Jin and Yuan Dynasties. Pieces used in table games such as the horse game, chess, and the drinker’s wager game also made their appearance during this period.
The Song Dynasty (960 -1279 AD) saw a large number of charms cast. The quality of horse coins used as pieces in a board game and as gambling tokens reached its peak during this time.
Besides the board game played with horse coins, the Chinese also developed their own version of chess which we call “Chinese chess”. The Chinese call it “elephant chess” (xiangqi) and the game includes elephants, cannons and even a river.
During the Liao Dynasty (916 – 1125 AD), the types of charms most commonly seen were those with fortuitous inscriptions such as the previously mentioned qian qiu wan sui ( 千秋万岁), as well as waist-worn charms in the shape of fish, and charms with the animals of the zodiac.
The Jin Dynasty (1115 – 1234 AD) saw the emergence of charms with some special characteristics. This was the result of the merging of the cultural arts of a plateau nationality with the ceremonies and legal customs of the Han nationality, along with styles of charms that had developed since the Song Dynasty. The Chinese are very good in using symbolism, allusions, suggestions, and homonyms to describe their customs and, during this period, drew on the experiences of the national minority of the Jin Dynasty to do so. For example, they used the symbol of the dragon to represent the emperor and the phoenix to represent the empress. Tigers and lions represented the ministers of government. The pine tree and the crane symbolized longevity. The jujube fruit symbolized “morning or early” because of a shared pronunciation (zao). Similarly, a “chicken” represented “lucky” because both characters are pronounced ji.
The Ming (1368 – 1644 AD) and Qing (Ch’ing) (1644 – 1911 AD) Dynasties saw the production of a very large quantity of charms with inscriptions of good fortune and celebration..
Chinese have traditionally sought what is called the “three many”, that is happiness, longevity and many children and grandchildren. They have also sought official position and wealth. Many of the charms from the Ming/Qing (Ch’ing) era reflect these desires. Many of these charms also rely on implied meanings using figures of persons and animals. Depictions of the tortoise, crane, pine tree, rocks and the peach were used to symbolize longevity. The crane symbolized the arrival of a happy event.
Ming and Qing (Ch’ing) Dynasty charms further expanded the repertoire of visual puns to convey a hidden meaning. For example, it may seen strange to the uninitiated to frequently find depictions of bats on the charms of this period until one is informed that the character for a bat (蝠) has exactly the same pronunciation as the character for “happiness” (福). On many charms, these bats are shown upside down. This is because the Chinese word for “upside down” (倒) is pronounced exactly the same as “to have arrived” (到). A person seeing a picture of an upside-down bat on a charm might say “the bat is upside-down” but anyone listening would just as easily hear this as “happiness has arrived” which, of course, is a good omen.
During the late Qing (Ch’ing) Dynasty, opposition to Manchu rule began to occur in parts of China. The Taiping Rebellion (1850 -1864 AD) was one such large-scale peasant uprising and an example of its rebel coinage can be seen at Peace Coins and Charms. Tokens also began to appear during this period, particularly in Jiangsu Province.
Chinese Charms of Different Shapes
Most Chinese charms are similar to old Chinese coins in that they are round with either a square or round hole in the center.
However, old Chinese charms can take on different shapes according to their intended use. For example, lock charms are meant to help “lock” children to life and therefore resemble traditional Chinese locks but with auspicious inscriptions on their front and back.
Gourds have a very long history of use in China and are a prominent symbol of longevity.
The fish symbolizes “more” as in the sense of more good luck, fortune, long life, children, etc.
Fish charms symbolize perseverance in overcoming the barriers a person must pass through in life.
The peach has a most interesting Chinese mythology and has come to stand for longevity and immortality.