Budo World

The Ideology of Tōken (swords)

The Sword of Ancient Chinese Taoism

1. The Flow of Taoism

The previous section looked at the bridging of ancient Japan and China through the concepts of the sword in the Korean peninsula, in relation to the legend of Kim Yusin. The exploits of the hero Kim Yusin saw him use his sword to unify the three Kingdoms—a sword that was considered sacred due to the light of a star that shone down on it, denoting the main point in this myth as the “stars”.

Further, Yusin was a member of the Hwarang, who engaged in divination. It is thought that the Hwarang had close links to ancient Chinese Taoism, and from the purview of the concepts of the sword, I would have to agree. Taoism, along with Buddhism and Confucianism, is one of the three major religions of China, and as it naturally spawned from folk beliefs and customs it has similarities to Japanese Shintō to the extent that there are scholars who claim that Shintō has been heavily influenced by Taoism. Taoist ideals suggest that the sword has much to do with the stars.

2. The Stars and Sword in Taoism

As discussed previously, in accordance with the concept of the heavens, the stars were seen as sacred, and the beliefs concerning stars and constellations were closely linked to the sword in Taoist thought. A representation of this can be found in the Ganshō-Kenkanzu—a text compiled during the T’ang Dynasty by the Taoist teacher Shiba Shōtei. In the text, the sacredness of the sword and the mirror is discussed with a diagram showing the shape of the ‘Big Dipper’ constellation inscribed on a sword. As the standard astronomical observations of Polaris (the North Star) and the Big Dipper were particularly revered, this etching made the sword a sacred item.  Furthermore, one other role of the hallowed sword in Taoism was its role in divination to ward off against evil spirits.

3. The Seishin (Astrological) Faith and the Sword


The link between belief in seishin (the stars and constellations) and the sword dates back a very long time. For instance, in the text “Kokon Token-roku” (a record of ancient and modern swords), during the Xia Dynasty (approx. 2100 –1600 BCE), there is a description of a person named Kei (said to be the child of the Yu, creator of Xia Dynasty) who scribed the shape of the stars into the swords that he cast. Just as Yu, Kei also had legends told about him, and although the historical credibility of this text is weak, it is perceivable that the connection between faith in astrology and swords is very old.

Furthermore, in the text used towards the end of the Spring and Autumn era (approx. 770–403 BCE) to deal with various matters, the “Go Etsu Shunjū”, it is said that the great commander Goshisho of the state of Go had seven stars (possibly the Great Dipper) engraved on his sword.

This association between astrological beliefs and the sword are rich within Taoist concepts, particularly in the developments resulting from its links to the magic arts and warding off evil spirits. In ancient China also, the sword was revered in accordance with the stars. However, it is also interesting that although the stars did not descend from heaven, they were still carved directly onto the sword.