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Religious Practise
Morning and Evening Rites
Refining the Vital Breath
Wandering About and Seeking Masters
Religious Discipline
Commandments of the Orthodox Oneness Sect
Commandments of the Complete Perfection Sect
Temple Regulations
Talismans, Registers, and Magic Skills
Divine Incantations
Finger Gestures
Pacing the Big Dipper
Magical Transformation Skills
Praying for Happiness and Offering Sacrifice
Summoning Spirits for Interrogation
Healing Diseases
Expelling the God of Plague
Names of the Three Fasts
Great Ritual Offerings to the Overarching Heaven
Lantern Rituals for the Destruction of Hell
Rituals of Purification and of Sacrifice to the Ancestral Souls
Rituals of Purification and Salvation
Rituals of Scattering Flowers and Communicating with Spirits through Lanterns
Rituals for Sending Petitions to the Heavens
Ceremonial Altars
Altars for Fasts
Altars for Ritual Offerings
Altars for Commandments
The Ancestral Altar of All Skills
Daoist Headdresses and Dress
Ritual Implements
Wooden Fish
Commandment Plaques
S-shaped Ornamental Objects
Magical Seals
Magical Staffs
Magical Swords
Shallow Pans
Inverted Bells
Horsetail Whisks
Large Cymbals
Ritual Specialists
High Priest
Cheif Cantor
Inspector of Fasts
Incense Attendant
Lantern Attendant
Scripture Attendant
Ceremonies to Celebrate the Birth of Spirits
Assemblies to Entice Spirits
Pilgrimage Times and Temple Fairs


In the process of conducting magic skills, Daoists usually make use of the mysterious functions of Talismans and Registers. Usually in Daoism, only those who have been imparted Talismans and Registers are qualified to be ritual masters in activities of carrying out magical skills. Magic arts cannot be done without Talismans and Registers as well as incantations, finger gestures, and Big Dipper pacing. That's why we'd like to talk about Talismans and Registers first when discussing magic skills.

Talismanic writings are all written in twisted characters, and look like drawings as well as calligraphy. The talisman is mainly used to invoke and impeach ghosts and cast spells in order to control the evil spirits. All of the registers are simplified books ( 素書 Sushu ), in which are inscribed the numbers of the heavenly officials. With talismans mixed into them, the writs are exceptionally strange and cannot be recognized by the ordinary people. At the same time they are considered as trusts to prove that a man has become a Daoist and also as a symbol of his right to control the divine officers on the talismans, and to conduct magical skills. Traditionally, Daoist sects characterized by imparting Talismans and Registers are said to belong to the Talisman and Registers tradition ( 符籙派 Fulu Pai ), but the use of Talismans and Registers is not restricted to these sects. When the Golden Elixir Sect ( 金丹派 Jindan Pai ) sets up an altar, it also applies Talismans and Registers. The Complete Perfection Tradition ( 全真道 Quanzhen Dao ) that sprang up in the Jin Dynasty paid more attention to Refinement and Nourishing Life. Nevertheless, its founder Wang Chongyang once applied talismans, and in the days after the Seven Perfect Ones of the Complete Perfection, adherents of the sect often applied talismans when they were invited by the imperial court or by officials to conduct grand Fasts and Offerings ( 齋醮 Zhaijiao ) of various kinds. Therefore some Daoists have said that the secret of magic arts are merely talismans, vital breath and medicine. Talismans, divine medicine and skills of vital breath are all elementary factors of Daoist magic skills.

The Origin of Talismans

Talismans are thought to be the strange writing of writs that can invoke spirits and control the ghosts. Talismanic characters, with their twisted strokes, look like drawings as well as calligraphy, and are not easy to recognize. They are applied quite a lot in Daoist skills. Where do they come from? According to the descriptions in Daoist scriptures, a talisman is a condensation of the clouds in the sky. In the Records of the Divine Talismans of the Three Grottoes ( 《三洞神符記》 Sandong Shenfu Ji ), it is written that " the talisman is originally condensed in the sky. The Supreme Perfection ( 太真 Taizhen ) faced upward, wrote the heavenly writings, differentiated the directions, and distinguished pictures and drawings from the writings of the talismans." Later, the Supreme Venerable Sovereign ( 太上老君 Taishang Laojun ) and other immortals imparted them to this world. Recently Mr. Meng Wentong has suggested that the characters of talismans with twisted strokes originated from the scripts of the minorities of the southwest, but this hypothesis is questionable. As a matter of fact, the writings of talismans came from our ancestors' worship of Chinese characters. When the Collective Explanations of the Biography of Xie Gunu ( 《解奴辜傳。集解》 Xienugu Zhuan Jijie ) from the Stories of Magical Arts in the History of the Later Han ( 《後漢書。方術傳》 Houhan Shu Fangshu Zhuan ) quoted Hui Dong, it said that in ancient times, there were ways of controlling spirits. Therefore the Book of Master Huainan ( 《淮南子》 Huainan Zi ) said that a long time ago when Cang Ji created Chinese characters, there was millet falling down from the sky, and spirits crying at night. In Gaoyou's commentary, he states that spirits were crying at night, afraid of being controlled by the talisman. So it is thus clear that the idea existed long ago that some special words or characters were able to impeach and control spirits. In civilized times, official documents such as mandates and decrees carried heavy authority, and their influence foisted the worship of the characters on the common people. Judging from the existing literature, Daoist talismans formed in the Eastern Han Dynasty, and resulted from the fact that the concept of absolute power over the common people in this world was transferred to the world of spirits. When Daoists made their own talismans, they actually imitated those made in the Qin and Han dynasties. And the talismans were mainly derived from the characters of central China. The talisman was originally a trust ( 憑信 Pingxin ) of the ancient sovereigns to invoke troops or deliver orders. At first, it was made of bamboo, and later of gold, jade, and bronze. Both the court and the generals held half of it, and applied it as a trust. The two halves of it put together indicated the fact that the messenger, with the talisman, represented the will of the ruler. So the generals had to follow the order he delivered. After talismans were transferred to the spiritual world, there appeared heavenly talismans and divine talismans. The witches and wizards might have been the first to put them into use, and the Yu Talisman was widely used in the Warring States period. In such activities as the dispelling of illnesses in the tomb, the witches or wizards of the Han Dynasty often applied them, and so we can call them " witch talismans" since they were the direct ancestors of the Daoist talisman.

The witch talismans we can observe today are written on receptacles unearthed from Han Dynasty tombs. Getting rid of ghosts with talismans was a sort of witchcraft to dispel the spirits. On such receptacles, the talismans and incantations have been discovered, which are a mixture of Chinese characters and diagrams of stars, which were thought capable of arresting ghosts. According to the records in the book On Judgements of Opinions ( 《論衡》 Lunheng ) of Wang Chong, it was the witches and wizards who conducted such activities. Most of the Daoist sects originated from sorcery and as a result the activities of dispelling the spirits became one of the magical skills of early Daoism. The book On the Two Teachings ( 《二教論》 Erjiao Lun ) of the Buddhist Dao'an mocked the witchcraft of the Three Zhangs, in which he mentioned the activity of using talismans to get rid of errors that annoyed the ghosts. The early Daoist sects from the folk society inherited and developed folk sorcery, which became a part of the system of Daoism. So the witch talismans were turned into Daoist talismans, and developed into volumes and volumes of talisman books. Such books produced in the Eastern Han Dynasty are The Double Character Book of the Supreme Peace ( 《太平經復文》 Taipingjing Fuwen ), The Five Talismans of the Numinous Treasure ( 《靈寶五符》 Lingbao Wufu ), The Perfect Writs of the Five Sprouts ( 《五芽真文》 Wuya Zhenwen ), The Writs of the Three August Ones ( 《三皇文》 Sanhuang Wen ), and so on. Of them, the Double Character Book of the Supreme Peace had most of its talismans made by doubling popular characters, in which the trace of witch talismans was easily seen.

As far as the implications of the writings of the talismans are concerned, Daoist talisman books illustrate certain religious ideas with coherent sentences. Compared to the witch talismans used by the folk witches and wizards, there are more characters in Daoist talismans, which are also more varied. This implies the transformation of Daoism from spontaneous folk witchcraft to a conscious religion with systematic theories. As far as the form of the talisman is concerned, there was a mixture or deformation of the official script of the Han Dynasty. Apart from it, the Daoist talisman borrowed seal characters and the worm-shaped and bird-shaped characters of the ancient times; these became the mainstream of the Daoist talisman. Such change began in the later stage of the Eastern Han Dynasty, the main representative of which is the Perfect Writs of the Five Sprouts and the Writs of the Three August Ones from the ancient Books of the Numinous Treasure. The talisman characters in the Perfect Writs of the Five Sprouts are in seal type writing. In the Great Skill of the Heavenly Immortal Gold Mother (《 天仙金母大法》 Tianxian Jinmu Dafa ) and the Numinous Treasure Golden Book of Salvation and Guidance ( 《靈寶領教濟度金書》 Lingbao Lingjiao Jidu Jinshu ), the pronunciations of the seal characters were given, but they were different from the pronunciations of the corresponding seal characters in philology books. The talismanic writing style in the Writs of the Three August Ones is called Heavenly Cloud-shaped Seal Character ( 天篆雲書 Tianzhuan Yunshu ) or Cloud-shaped Seal Character ( 雲篆 Yunzhuan ) in Daoism. It is mixed with seal type writing, ancient characters, and overlapped characters similar to double characters in the Double Character Book of the Supreme Peace. In Daoist thought, such a talisman was the secret of the supreme heaven, so it was called "Heavenly Seal Character". At the same time, the talisman was condensed with the vapor of clouds in the sky, and the Immortals in heaven imitated it and imparted it to the human world. So it was called "Cloud-shaped seal character" or "Cloud-shaped Writing", which was an imitation of popular seal characters and of the worm-shaped and bird-shaped characters of ancient times. And to focus on its features, the strokes are twisted like clouds that are winding around. Since such an idea was accepted, the Daoists tried to have the strokes of talismans twisted even when they drew double character talismans. Thus it became the general characteristic of the Daoist talisman.

Since the Eastern Han Dynasty, more and more Daoist talismans were produced. The fifth chapter of the Inner Book of the Master Who Embraces Simplicity (《抱朴子內篇》 Baopu Zi ) recorded that there were 56 kinds of great talismans, amounting to over 500 volumes. The new sects that appeared later often created their own talismans and compiled their own books of talismans. Daoist Talismans and Registers became the trust of the succession of Daoist sects.

The Structure of Talismans

Daoist Talismans are mainly composed of Chinese characters while others consist of astrological diagrams or objects for casting spells ( 厭勝物 Yansheng Wu ), and some of them even have divine images on them. But the majority of them are made up of characters and transformed characters. Because of this, talismans should have been understandable. Lu Xiujing once pointed out that in all the writings of the talisman there were Chinese characters, but they were not easily understood. If one was able to understand them, one could register and invoke thousands of souls and control hundreds of spirits. There was nothing that could not be done. (Supreme Pervasive Mysterious Perfect Talisman of Simple Numinosity ( 《太上洞玄靈寶素靈真符》 Taishang Dongxuan Lingbao Suling Zhenfu )) He took the Dujiang Talisman ( 《都匠符》 Doujiang Fu ) as an example to illustrate that it was composed of the five overlapped characters of the "Peaceful Bright Day of the Heavenly Emperor" ( “合明天帝日” Heming Tiandi Ri ). As we observe the five characters, we may find that their shape was changed a little, especially the character "Bright" formed by four characters meaning "sunshine". It was different from the common way of writing it, and this kind of change was as free as the talisman maker wanted it to be. And the character "Bright" can also be made up of two characters meaning "sunshine". Offered by the emperor in the Song Dynasty, The Talisman for Controlling the Mind ( 《鎮心符》 Zhenxin Fu ) in Mt. Mao, composed of half of the Dujiang Talisman, was made in this way. The formation of the Dujiang Talisman was comparatively simple and easy to be understood whereas other talismans greatly changed in their shapes were hard to be recognized. Ge Hong mentioned that an assistant interpreter of the talismans in the distant past was able to read the talismans and know if there was anything wrong with them. Someone showed him the images of the talismans for casting spells and impeaching ghosts and those for curing diseases after taking their names, and he succeeded in recognizing them and telling the names of the talismans (see the Inner Book of the Master Who Embraces Simplicity, Chapter 5) ( 《抱朴子•內篇•遐覽》 Baopu Zi Neipian Xialan ). In the Eastern Han Dynasty, most Daoist talismans were comparatively simple and could be understood by the people who were good at them. But talismans such as the Five Talismans of the Numinous Treasure ( 《靈寶五符》 Lingbao Wufu ), similar to stone seals or worm-shaped characters with interlocking patterns, adjoining against each other along a zigzag borderline, were difficult to pronounce except if their maker told you how to read them.

The special characters for making talismans are called Talismanic Characters. Talismanic Characters have their own pronunciations, which are called Talismanic Sounds. Talismans are constituted of the Talismanic Characters and other elements, including the diagrams of the stars ( 星圖 Xingtu ), divine images, and objects for casting spells. Knowing the implications of these elements can help you to know the structure of the talisman. With the introduction above, we can see that talismans consist of Talismanic Characters made according to certain principles, together with some other elements. Simple talismans are made up of one or several simple Talismanic Characters, but complicated ones are composed of many mixed parts. Therefore they are hard for us to read. Not only do the elements of talismans differ from sect to sect, but also the ways of making and reading them are passed down secretly from master to disciple within the sects. Laymen seldom have had a chance to see them. Moreover, the collocation, the order, and the positions of the various parts of the talismans are not easy for laymen to know. For example, in the Five Talismans of the Numinous Treasure, also called the Numinous Treasure Talisman Mandate of the Five Directions ( 靈寶五方符命 Lingbao Wufang Fu Ming ), it is hard for us to distinguish the talisman's parts and structure.

As far as the images of the talismans are concerned, there are some other talismans with shades of layers of different colors. Sometimes they look like a large dripping-wet ink ball, and sometimes they seem to look like an outline of the spirits. They seem to be too mysterious to be understood because of their obscure structure. As a matter of fact, they can be understood and analyzed. Of course, you have to track down the process of its making, instead of racking your brains in front of the finished product.

Such talismans with ink balls and obscure structures were once prevalent in the Daoist sects of Thunder Skills ( 雷法 Leifa ) after the Song Dynasty. Now let's take the Prompt Fire Talisman of the Great Spirits ( 《火大神符》 Xuhuo Dashen Fu ) as an example.

The title of the Great Spirit of Prompt Fire is Heavenly Sovereign Deng, Fire Emperor and Grand Spirit of Statutes and Ordinances in Charge of the Prompt Fire of the Nine Heavens ( 《九天火律令大神炎帝鄧天君》 Jiutian Xuhuo Luling Yandi Deng Tianjun ). His name is Xie, and he is also called Bowen. He is the commander in chief of the Thunder Agency. He looks very strong and ferocious. This talisman is obviously the sketch of his appearance after being assembled.

On the right hand is the decomposed image of the talisman ---- one part or one stroke of the talisman, and the complete image ---- the complete shape made up of several parts or strokes of the talisman, together with the corresponding incantation for writing the talisman. According to the incantation for writing talismans, each part of the talisman has some specific symbolic meaning. All the parts assembled together make a writ to praise the mighty power of the heavenly sovereign and a call to burn the ghosts and dispel disasters. The left eye is the sun, and the right eye is the moon. As soon as the heavenly sovereign opens his eyes, the flames will be tremendous, illuminating Heaven and Earth and dispelling the evil spirits. Heaven is round and the Earth is square, with the Nine Songs of the Six Temperaments ( 六律九章 Liulu Jiuzhang ) and the Eight Trigrams. ( This image implies the secret of transformation, and the Nine Songs of the Six Temperaments are thought to indicate the principles of the universe.) The Messenger of the Eastern Heaven ( 東方蠻霄使者 Dongfang Manxiao Shizhe ) and the Messenger of the Five Directions ( 五方使者 Wufang Shizhe ) spring up promptly. The Highest Emperor has ordered to annihilate the evil spirits at the Nine Quarters, arrest and tie up those who do not obey the orders in the Five Mountains. Promptly, Promptly, in Accordance with the Statues and Ordinances! ( 急急如律令 Ji Ji Ru Luling ) The thunder and fire have burned out. The spirits have feared and the divine ones worried. Beat the ghosts on the Kunlun Mountains and the hills on the right, so that the water in the Four Seas stops flowing. Strike the spirits in the Five Mountains, so that the heavenly stars crash down to the earth. Pull the Heaven and drag the Earth. With flaming clouds in his hands, the Highest Emperor soars over the Six Realms ( 六合 Liuhe ) and the universe. When seeing him, the dragons tie themselves up and the ghosts are wiped out. The shining Fire Chariot comes over promptly, and Mars comes to burn the ghosts and dispel disasters. Promptly, Promptly!" Every stroke of the talisman is a special sign of the incantation. But in the assembled drawing of the talisman on the left, the separated parts are mixed together, unrecognizable.

The talismans, matched with the objects for casting spells, the diagrams of the stars, and the divine images, are composed of Chinese characters or Daoist coinage (Talismanic Characters) by imitating the six philological ways of constructing Chinese characters ( 六書 Liushu ) according to certain religious ways of thinking. The simple talismans are made up of one or several elements mentioned above, and the symbolic meaning is relatively uncomplicated. But the complicated ones consist of many of the elements with quite a few procedures for making them and rich symbolic meanings. In fact, they are similar to the official call to arms or notices with long writs. It is very natural that the elements of the talismans and the corresponding ideas are accepted among the makers and successors of the talismans. Consequently, laymen are unable to know the secret and understand the talismans.

Talismans are widely applied in the various stages of Daoist skills, fasts and offerings, and rituals. They are used when setting up altars, invoking the generals, offering petitions, casting spells, destroying Darkness, refining and saving by water and fire. At the same time, Daoists often use Talismanic Water to cure diseases, control the spirits, and dispel ghosts for the people. So talismans are popular among the folks, and part of the custom of the common people. For instance, the customs of putting up the Celestial Master Talisman ( 天師符 Tianshi Fu ) on Dragon Boat Day, and wearing protective talisman bags, are quite prevalent all over many areas of China.