Thursday, January 19, 2012

Chinese Good Luck Charms

In America you will encounter the occasional lucky horseshoe or four-leaf clover, but in Taiwan good luck charms are truly ubiquitous. There are literally hundreds of different ones, and Chinese New Year is the time they are especially featured.

Large hanging charms of golden coins and yuan bao.

Many of the charms represent money, which in turn symbolizes prosperity in general. After all, what could be luckier than money? These money charms often take the form of actual coins, usually the old Chinese cash which were round with square holes, as seen above. Even more common than coins are yuan bao, the hat-shaped objects which were the traditional Chinese form of gold and silver ingots.

Traditionally gold or silver, yuan bao are also seen here in jade, amber, and crystal.

Jade bi, round jade discs with central holes. 

Jade bi (pronounced bee) like these were ritual objects in ancient China and pre-date coins. They are much used today, and because of their coin-like shape blend in well with other good-luck charms. Below some bi form a yuan bao, while others are printed to resemble coins.

Strings of charms with yuan bao, bi, and coins

A Chinese money god holds a yuan bao and sits on a pile of golden coins and more yuan bao.]

Many fruits and vegetables are lucky. A yellow or orange color symbolizes gold and money, while many seeds indicate abundance and prosperity. Although they never existed in ancient China, sweet corn and peanuts are now so popular that they are as familiar in lucky charms as they are to eat.

The orange above represents prosperity and abundance, as do the ears of corn below.

If the peanut symbolism isn’t clear enough, these are additionally stamped with the words for happiness and luck.

Chinese years work on a 12-year repeating cycle, with a special animal for each year: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat or Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. This year (Jan 23, 2012 – Feb  9, 2013) is a Dragon year, so I plan to cover dragons more thoroughly in another post. Whatever year you are born in becomes your special lucky piece. For example, if you are born in a monkey year, then you are considered a ‘monkey’, and will always want to wear or display monkey charms.

Goat Year is long over, but this lucky goat charm continues to serve.

All the zodiac animals take part in this string of ceramic charms

You likely noticed in several of the photos that the charms are tied with elaborate knots, usually with red string. These special lucky knots are a traditional Chinese craft, and some charms consist of knots all by themselves. A couple of major lucky symbols that I cannot omit are ruyi, a kind of good-luck scepter, and bats, already covered previously.  Real firecrackers, useful in scaring away evil spirits, go off constantly during Chinese New Year, and fake firecrackers of all sizes are also seen everywhere: 

These firecrackers are one foot high not including the ‘fuses’.

The Taipei 101 building, for a while the tallest building in the world. (Photo from Wikipedia)

A close-up reveals pendant ruyi hanging above giant lucky coins, presumably symbolizing how much money you’ll need to shop in the boutiques inside

These examples barely scratch the surface of Chinese good luck symbols. Let me know if you have a favorite good-luck charm of your own, either traditional or something that is your personal talisman. Here’s wishing all of you good luck and prosperity for the coming Dragon Year.

The outer charms feature fish; the middle one with Guan Yin is especially made for use in cars, saying “Safety in Traffic” and “Leave happily, Return safely”.]


  1. Hello:
    We have been fascinated to read of these lucky charms. Such a bewildering array of them and each symbolising something special. From your marvellous photographs, they look to be beautifully made with such close attention to every small detail.

    We have calculated that we were born in the years of the Goat and the Pig and now, we are wondering what exactly that means? Whatever, we trust that the Year of the Dragon will bring you joy, health and prosperity!!

  2. Hello Jane and Lance, Thank you for your good wishes. I didn't know either how compatible your animal signs were, so I did some quick checking, and found: "One of the best possible combinations. Both are home loving and loyal. This is going to be a harmonious relationship."

    Maybe there's something to Chinese horoscopes after all....

  3. Although of course there is a large Chinese population here, (but forcibly interspersed into Thais, with Thai names), and we shall have the rat-a-tat-tat of firecrackers on Monday, for once there is not a holiday. However, we shall no doubt get an influx of Chinese from the region. I noted that over 3 billion travel within the PRC alone. I imagine airports and station are best avoided during this period. Gong Xi Fai Cai!

  4. Hello Columnist, Long Nian Hao to you, too. You are right that travel is a madhouse during Chinese New Year. Most people get 2-3 week vacations, and head off for sunny climes. Taiwan is not really a great beach island, and Taipei City, in spite of what some think, is only semi-tropical, and is usually chilly and rainy all winter. I'll be staying put, however, and maybe get a few more blog entries in.

  5. I like your collection of good luck charms, particulalry the goat, which might vie with Botero sculptures.

    I was born in the year of the ox, though what I've read about "ox people" is not altogether flattering!

    As an insatiable collector, I've always tended to imbue inanimate objects with the personalities of my own projection, and even so, it is natural objects that strike me as the most powerful, and which have become my own good luck charms. I keep an egg-shaped stone from Findhorn in my car, and a number of minerals are scattered on my end tables. Malachite is by far my favorite mineral.

  6. Hello Mark, I didn't know of Botero, so I just checked him out, and you are exactly right about the plump quality of the goat echoing Botero's figures--even his skeletons look like they could stand to lose some weight!

    I also agree with you about the aura of natural objects. If I ever learn how to take better photos, I'll have to try to feature some of the more unusual specimens I've acquired here.

  7. We have much of the same sort of charms in Japan, which is not surprising. Also our money resembles Chinese money since the concept was essentially borrowed from mainland China.

    Yay Taipei 101. As you know, I posted my pictures of my time at 101 myself, and I didn't even think about mentioning some of the side features like the bi.

  8. I grew up with a lot of Chinese antiques/decorations and was taught to always rub the Budda stomach for good luck!

  9. Hello for the love of a house, I hadn't thought of that, but it's a great idea; we need all the luck we can get. I'll bet the money god, can be used in the same way, so we'll try it and see what happens.

  10. Hello Kionon, We also have a lot of Japanese charms in Taiwan, especially those cats sitting up holding mottoes. Also, the whole roster of Japanese cartoon characters is frequently called upon for assistance. My favorite is Kogepan, but the most common is of course Hello Kitty.

  11. Dearest Jim,
    Together with Pieter I landed here on this post via your link...
    Oh I always have loved the elaborate knots that Chinese people make. Even in silk, instead of a button they create a knotted one. We can only admire them and I must admit, it makes us Westerners look clumsy compared to their nimble fingers.
    The once tallest building in the world, the Taipei 101 was only build after Pieter visited Taiwan. Love your mention about those lucky coins symbolizing how much money you ought to have for shopping those boutiques!
    Love the golden peanuts with their red cord but we don't have any Chinese lucky charms.

    1. Hello Mariette and Pieter, I am sure that you saw innumerable good luck charms when you lived in Asia. You are right about the innate ability here for people to tie knots--in stores they tie up packages with complicated knots that I would never attempt, yet they never fall apart en route.

      I'll have to admit that the fancy boutiques in 101 are not a temptation for me, but recently some friends took me to a place that I had never noticed that is virtually right there--an old army compound in which you can walk around and look at historical exhibits, while of course outside there are food vendors!


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