5% WELCOME DISCOUNT ON ALL PRODUCTS

Check our Sword Shop

Chinese Sword Symbols and Their Significance

Written By: Abigail Cambal
Published On: April 12, 2023
Edited by: Juliana Cummings

Chinese society has always believed in the power of symbolisms, amulets, and talismans. So, it’s unsurprising that swords are engraved with auspicious symbols. These ornaments are beautiful and meaningful to Chinese culture and philosophy. Many represent luck, long life, happiness, prosperity, and wealth, all of which remain relevant in modern times.

Let’s explore the most popular Chinese sword symbols seen on blades and mountings and their significance in Chinese culture.

1. The Big Dipper

Ming militia sword
Ming militia sword – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

In astronomy, the Big Dipper is a group of seven stars in the Ursa Major constellation. In Chinese, it is known as Běidǒu (北斗), which means Northern Dipper. It is frequently worshiped by the Chinese and is considered the throne of the supreme deity Shang-di in ancient Chinese religion and later Taoism.

The Big Dipper is commonly found on sword blades, often in the form of seven brass dots, sometimes with lines connecting them. The symbol is most seen on the Chinese straight sword jian, which collectors call the seven stars jian. It also appears on guandao polearms, or yǎnyuèdāo (偃月刀), and rarely on spearheads and saber blades.

A rare inscription referring to the Big Dipper in text on a large Daoist jian
A rare inscription referring to the Big Dipper in text on a large Daoist Jian – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

Sometimes, the Big Dipper appears as an inscription on Taoist jian. The inscription 北斗七星南斗六星 translates as Big Dipper and South Douliou Star, in which the latter is a Chinese constellation we know as Sagittarius. In Taoism, the Big Dipper is thought to have strong exorcistic powers and plays a significant role in meditation and rituals.

2. Yin and Yang

Shuangjian with intricately carved ivory grips
Shuangjian with taiji
 symbol – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

In Chinese philosophy, the Yin and Yang are opposing but connected forces that underlie everything in nature. It is based on the principle of dualism; the Yin represents the female, earth, moon, and darkness, while the Yang symbolizes the male, heaven, sun, and light.

Also known as the taiji symbol, the Yin and Yang comprises a circle divided into two, and each half contains a smaller circle of the opposite color. Some Taoist jian features the Yin and Yang symbol on the pommel or sword blade.

3. Bagua or Eight Trigrams

Chinese double shortswords with trigam in its pommel
Chinese double shortswords with octagonal pommels – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

The Bāguà (八卦), meaning Eight Trigrams, consists of combinations of three lines, broken or unbroken, arranged in a circle. In Chinese philosophy and belief, each trigram has its own attributes or virtues and refers to a particular element, animal, and direction, typically used in divination. In Taoism, each of the trigrams represents a Taoist immortal.

The Eight Trigrams often appear on the straight sword jian, usually on pommels and blades. Some octagonal pommels feature the Yin and Yang at the center of the symbol. Some sword blades also feature the deconstructed form of the Eight Trigrams. Some believe it has the power to ensure prosperity and avoid misfortune.

4. Bats and Longevity Symbols

Shuangjian with carved scabbard
Shuāngjiàn with carved scabbard – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

In Chinese belief, bats are symbols of happiness and longevity. The Chinese pronunciation for the word bat is , which is the homonym of 福—happiness, good fortune, blessing, and prosperity. The Chinese god of happiness, Fuxing, is sometimes shown as a bat, symbolizing good luck.

On the other hand, shou (壽) is the Chinese character for longevity and is often used to offer wishes for long life. Together, these symbols form the pun fúshòu (福壽), which means a long and happy life. Some jian mountings, especially the fushou type, feature both stylized bats and longevity symbols on the handguard, pommel, and scabbard fittings. 

5. Swastika

Hudiedao set with Interlocking patterns of swastikas
Hudiedao set with Interlocking patterns of swastikas – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

The term swastika comes from the Sanskrit svastika, which means conducive to well-being. In the Buddhist tradition, it represents the footprints of the Buddha. When Buddhism spread in China and Japan, the swastika also became widespread, symbolizing prosperity, abundance, and long life.

Interlocking patterns of swastikas are sometimes carved on the sword’s grip or featured on the guard of Chinese swords, implying that the owner wishes lots of luck in his life and his family’s bloodline.

6. Dragons

The Demon Repeller Talisman sword
The Demon Repeller – Talisman sword – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

Unlike the Western dragon, the Chinese dragon is regarded as a symbol of goodness, strength, and the spirit of change. Some decorations on sword mountings and blades feature dragons chasing a pearl, typical on Chinese imperial coats of arms from the Han to the Qing dynasty.

A five-clawed dragon was the emblem of imperial power, worn by the emperor and his sons. A four-clawed dragon was restricted to the princes of the third and fourth rank, while certain officials used a serpent-like creature with five claws as their emblem.

Kui Dragons

Kuiwen motifs on the hilt fittings of a Qing saber late 18th to early 19th century
Kuíwén motifs on the hilt fittings of a Qing saber, late 18th to early 19th century – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

The kui is a primitive form of a dragon, and kuíwén (夔紋) is a Chinese motif that incorporates these primitive dragons. They are one-legged beasts and are generally seen as benevolent creatures that restrain greed. However, there are various forms of dragons in Chinese mythology and emblems.

In sword mountings, the kui dragons often look like abstract motifs or scrollwork with dragon faces in the designs. These kuíwén patterns were inspired by those seen in ancient Chinese bronzes, which were prized collectibles among the emperor and Chinese elites.

Chīlóng

Late Qing Longquan Jian
Late Qing Longquan Jian – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

A subspecies of a dragon, the chīlóng (螭龍) is a rain or water dragon, recognizable by its salamander-like appearance and a forked tail. These dragons are considered immature creatures that have not yet grown horns. In sword mountings, they often represent hopes and aspirations and are not associated with imperial status.

7. Tāotiè

Early Chinese shortsword
Early Chinese shortsword – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

A tāotiè (饕餮) is a mythical creature most recognized for its zoomorphic mask. Its name means glutton, likely derived from its gluttonous nature as an ever-devouring beast. Many believe it was a warning against gluttony or self-indulgence, while others suggest it may be a protective, totemic, or representation of the forces of nature. The symbol often appears on zoomorphic sword guards of jian, in a backward-swept form.

8. Lotus

Large Chinese Daoist sword
Large Chinese Daoist sword – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

The lotus flower is considered sacred in Eastern cultures and holds various symbolisms, such as purity, rebirth, faith, and integrity. The lotus emerges from the muddy depths and grows toward the surface, exposing itself as a pristine flower. In Buddhism, the lotus is one of the eight auspicious symbols and represents the path toward enlightenment. 

The lotus motif is often found on sword mountings, from sword guards to ferrules and pommels. The most common lotus motifs are engraving or pierced metalwork, such as stylized lotus petal borders on sword guards. Some Taoist jian, which feature several Taoist motifs, are also equipped with a lotus-shaped guard, likely associated with religious practice.

9. Bamboo

Handle of a Cantonese saber
The handle of a Cantonese saber with bamboo motif- Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

Bamboo is an important plant in Chinese culture and mythology. It serves as a symbol of longevity, likely due to its durability and the fact that it flourishes throughout winter. Bamboo motifs are common on Chinese sword guards, usually as decoration, such as bamboo-sectioned rims.

10. Coins

Longquan Daoist shuangjian
Lóngquán Daoist shuāngjiàn – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

The Chinese coin symbolizes prosperity and often doubles as an ornament and amulet on sword mountings. Coin cutouts are popular ornaments in Southern China. Some sword mountings, including pommels, ferrules, and suspension bands, are sometimes pierced with stylized coin motifs.

11. Mantra

Chinese hushou with lantsa script 1
Chinese hùshǒu with lantsa script – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

Some Chinese sword guards feature auspicious markings, such as a mantra for meditation. A notable example features the well-known mantra oṃ ā hūṃ in Lantsa script, which is thought to signify the trinity of body, sound, and spirit. The first letter represents the syllable om, which is said to embody the essence of the entire universe.

The mantras written in Lantsa script were also common in helmets of Manchus and Mongols, who were Tibetan Buddhists. They were even worn by Qianlong emperors and later by high-ranking military officials.

12. Emblems of the Eight Immortals

Shuangjian with carved scabbard featuring the Eight Immortals
Shuāngjiàn with carved scabbard featuring the Eight Immortals – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

One of the most recognizable themes in Chinese legend and artwork, the Eight Immortals is a group of legendary figures who attained immortality. Each has his own story and emblem to signify his power.

Among the emblems of the Eight Immortals are the gourd, fan, sword, bamboo drum, castanets, flute, lotus, and flowers. Some Taoist jian swords feature the depictions of figures themselves on blades, while some scabbard features carvings of items associated with the Immortals.

Conclusion

Many believe that symbols have the power to change one’s life. It is therefore not surprising that many sword owners favored sword mountings with auspicious symbols to attract good fortune or protection in all aspects of their lives. Some Chinese sword symbols that represent happiness, luck, prosperity, wealth, and long life remain objects of interest among collectors.

Sources Cited
  1. An, D., & Yang, L. (2008). Handbook of Chinese Mythology (J. A. Turner, Ed.). Oxford University Press.
  2. Bāguà (八卦) “Eight Trigrams”. (2021, March 21). Mandarin Mansion. Retrieved April 11, 2023, from https://www.mandarinmansion.com/glossary/bagua-bagua-eight-trigrams
  3. Běidǒu (北斗). (2019, June 27). Mandarin Mansion. Retrieved April 11, 2023, from https://www.mandarinmansion.com/glossary/beidou
  4. Eberhard, W. (1988). Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Thought. Taylor & Francis.
  5. Handler, S. (2005). Ming Furniture in the Light of Chinese Architecture. Ten Speed.
  6. Kuíwén (夔紋). (2023, February 23). Mandarin Mansion. Retrieved April 11, 2023, from https://www.mandarinmansion.com/glossary/kuiwen
  7. Roberts, J. (2010). Chinese Mythology, A to Z. Chelsea House.
  8. Tāotiè (饕餮). (2019, May 15). Mandarin Mansion. Retrieved April 11, 2023, from https://www.mandarinmansion.com/glossary/taotie
  9. Taotie | mask motif | Britannica. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved April 11, 2023, from https://www.britannica.com/art/taotie
  10. Williams, C. A. S. (2006). Chinese symbolism and art motifs : a comprehensive handbook on symbolism in Chinese art through the ages (T. Barrow, Ed.). Tuttle Publishing.
Get Weekly Insights on Everything Swords