The Earliest Known Daoist Talismans

April 6, 2009


According to Prof. Ge Zhao-Guang 葛兆光 of the Department of History, Tsinghua University Beijing, the two Talismans shown above with their accompanying inscription are the two earliest known specimen excavated by archaeologists in China so far.

They were written in red Mercury Sulphide (Zhu Sha 朱砂 or Cinnabar) on a “Jie Zhe Ping” 解謫瓶, a ceramic bottle/vase that is suppose to have contained the deceased’s Yin soul which is to be taken up to heaven to rejoin with his Yang soul and his living sins absolved by the talismans (為死者解謫, 生人除罪過) (refer note at the end on Chinese concept of the soul)

The discovery was made in an Eastern Han 東漢 tomb in a village called Zhujiabao 朱家堡 in Huxian County 戶縣 Shaanxi Province 陝西 in 1972. The deceased’s surname was Cao and the inscription on the vase next to the talismans said he was buried in the 8th Moon of the Second Year in the Reign of Yang Jia 陽嘉二年 (133 AD) when Liu Bao 劉保 was the Emperor.

Experts like Prof. Ge and Prof. Wang Yu-Cheng 王育成 have made attempts to decipher their meanings and below are some of their findings:

The first talisman to the right is composed of the characters Tu (earth), Ri (sun), Yue (moon), Wei (tail) and Gui (ghost).  The Tu (earth) with the five Ri (sun) have the implication of being a Dou , representing the Big Dipper in a commanding position of the Chinese sky. The Ri (sun) and the Yue (moon) together form the boundary of the entire heaven and the Wei (tail) with the Gui (ghost) could refer to the “life” and “death” parts of the 28 Lunar Mansions. They all have to do with the heavenly bodies and hidden within the characters and difficult to see is the character Shi or time (as in being timely).

So the aim of this talisman could have been drawing on the power of the heavenly bodies and the heavenly spirits to assist the world in regulating matters of life and death, fortune and misfortune. (凭借天上星辰以及天上神鬼的力量对世间生死祸福进行调节) When the time is right, the Yin and the Yang are again harmonized by the power of the talismans, so the dead will continue to live in peace in the other world.

The second talisman to the left is less obvious in its writings, one can recognize the character Yun (to allow and to permit), covering the whole talisman. In the middle below is a star formation in the shape of a Y, with the characters Tai , Tian and Yi recognizable at the top of the Y figure. Tai Tian Yi can be read separately as Tai Yi and Tian Yi 天一, which are two stars in the Purple Palace Constellation above the Big Dipper, according to Prof. Qian Bao-Cong 錢寶琮.

However, Prof. Wang Yu-Cheng was more inclined to link the Y star formation and the characters Tai Tian Yi to a military formation called Tai Yi Feng 太一鋒 (“feng” is the cutting edge of a sword) to evade the enemies, except in this old illustration to avoid the enemies (Bi Bing Tu 避兵圖 discovered in another early Han archeological dig ) the Y figure is reversed.

The characters Zhu (a master), Zhu (chase, expel), Sha (evil spirit) and Gui (ghost) are also recognizable with three others uncertain below and to either side of the Y.  The general conclusion the experts drawn is this talisman ws used to protect the burial site 鎮安塚墓, but they also realized within the Daoist religion, only the initiated of the time are capable of fully understanding the symbolic meanings of these figures written during the funeral rite. They are written under strict spiritual guidance and strict ritual rules with deep inner sincerity to communicate with the Daoist Deities above. At the time of the writing, the Daoist priest is in a state of total communion with his counterparts in Heaven.


The Heart is in harmony with the Spirit, the Spirit is in harmony with the Qi, the Qi are truly harmonized (with each other), (thus) the Yin and the Yang are in peace, (while) the sun illuminated the Yang and the moon illuminated the Yin.


Using the Essence and the Qi of the Dao, to pacify and to protect the Five Directions. 


葛兆光 神授天书不立文字


“In the…bodily existence of the individual…are…two… polarities, a p’o soul (or anima) and a hun soul (animus).  All during the life of the individual these two are in conflict, each striving for mastery.  At death they separate and go different ways.  The anima sinks to earth as kuei (gui), a ghost-being.  The animus rises and becomes shen, a spirit or god.”

[Cary Baynes, ed.; Richard Wilhelm and C.  G.  Jung, The Secret of the Golden Flower, (Harcourte Brace Jovanovich, 1962), p.64]



2 Responses to “The Earliest Known Daoist Talismans”

  1. Hi Howard,

    Thanks for this interesting article!
    The hun and po spirits are very worthwile to research.

    Best greetings,


  2. Jinlong Says:

    Hi Howard,

    Thank’s for the article relating to Daoist Talisman.
    By the way do you have some opinion about the ‘Five Sacred Talisman’ which supposed by many Daoist especially ‘Zheng Yi Pai’ the supreme Talisman in Daoist Religion?


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