Poetry about Charms

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Poetry about Charms is a type of Daoist poetry. Its characteristic lies in the poetic expressive technique and the magical function of charms.


Charms had been popular before the foundation of Daoism. As words of prayer, early charms were signs or inner expressions of intense feelings. Therefore, "charms" correspond with "prayers" in meaning. At the very start "prayers" are endowed with the double function of procuring the good and banishing the evil. Praying orally for the descent of benevolent deities can procure the good, but another purpose is banishing the evil. Violent and commanding words are needed for this purpose. Hence oaths and curses became charms. For example, it is recorded in the chapter "North of the Wilderness" of The Book of Mountains and Seas ( 山海經 Shanhai Jing ) that when Chiyou started military operations against the Yellow Emperor, the Yellow Emperor ordered the "responding dragon" to attack the wilderness in Jizhou. The "responding dragon" stored water. Then Chiyou asked the Earl of Wind and the Master of Rain to blow and rain hard. So the Yellow Emperor asked the heavenly maiden "Ba" to descend and stop the rain and thereupon he killed Chiyou. Afterwards, because Ba couldn't return to heaven, it did not rain. Then the Yellow Emperor ordered Shujun, who was in charge of the field, to drive away Ba and pray for rain to dispel the drought. Shujun commanded:

The deity should go northward!
First clear waterways!
Dredge the trenches!

This order is a charm. It sounds resolute and decisive, rhythmic and forceful. The sentence pattern is a combination of three-character and four-character verses, and the second and third sentences roughly rhyme. It can be regarded as a rudimentary poem about charms. With the frequent practice of praying and the popularity of poetry, charms gradually evolved to into a fixed rhythm anda well-balanced sentence pattern. And then four-character and five-character charms took shape. Such sentence patterns were adopted at the beginning of the foundation of Daoism. In the Wei, the Jin and the Northern and Southern dynasties, as a particular kind of Magical Arts ( 方術 Fangshu ), charms were regarded as important by Daoists. Charms inherited on the one hand, and imitated and innovated on the other hand. Along with the rapid increase of Daoist scriptures, new charms were produced in large number. It can be found from the Daoist scriptures of this period quoted in the ''Essential Secrets of the Most High'' ( 無上秘要 Wushang Miyao ) that charms exist in almost all the Daoist scriptures on magical arts. The Jade Book of the Great Grotto ( 大洞玉經 Dadong Yujing ) of the Highest Clarity sect ( 上清派 Shangqing Pai ) alone collects 39 charms. Although not all these charms are poems, it is certain that there are a considerable number of poems on charms. The major type of poetic charm that has been quite influential ever since the Wei and the Jin dynasties is the "Incantations of Perfect Writs ( 真文咒 Zhenwen Zhou ) ", i.e., the incantations of the Five Tablets in Perfect Script ( 五篇真文 Wupian Zhenwen ). These charms are composed in line with the five directions of East, West, South, North, and Center. In addition, the "Incantations of the Three August Ones ( 三皇 Sanhuang )" and the "Highest Clarity ( 上清 Shangqing ) Incantations" are nearly equal to the "Incantations of Perfect Writs". During the development of Daoism, different kinds of poetry on charms interacted, producing variants on the basis of the three types.


In Daoist poetry about charms, the names of deities are actually the key images. Each deity has his own story. When the deities' stories are condensed into allusions by the charm producers, the artistic conception of poetry about charms is created. Meanwhile, enhancing the atmosphere is an important aspect of poetry about charms. The poems used for asking deities to kill evil demons notably convey a militant mood. For example, the poems about charms in The Book of Divine Incantations of the Supreme Pervasive Abyss ( 太上洞淵神咒經 Taishang Dongyuan Shenzhou Jing ) list various deities and weapons and depict the sight of lightning. They are just like soul-stirring descriptions of fighting.