In spiritual Taoism, most often you will see paper talisman being used, commonly called FU 符.
Talisman in Taoism is an official way to communicate with different deities and spirits. Of course other cultures would use different methods such as chanting a specific verse or word, commonly known as mantra. Because of length of Chinese civilization, our culture already have characters since 2500BC to represent written communication. Therefore in Taoism, written words are used as the main form of communication medium with the higher deities.
If you look at different countries in South East Asia such as Cambodia, their main communication medium with deities and spirits is through chanting of mantras. Some Thai monks and Thai occult masters would usually make their journey up to Cambodia to learn different types of magic. It is said that Khmer language is more suitable for magic as compared to the Thai language. Most of the katha (Thai language for mantra) that are used today are still mainly in Khmer language.
Bomoh (Malay language for Malay Shaman) would use the words and alphabets in the Quran to help heal those who are afflicted with spiritual disturbance. And the list goes on for different cultures with their different methods.
For some, they would find it hard to believe or puzzled on how that a simple drawing on a yellow piece of paper be able to help spiritually. The criteria and preparation to draw a talisman is not as simple as your normal art or calligraphy hobby. Far far from what you expect.
The person must be initiated into a Taoist lineage. If the person is not initiated in a Taoist lineage, the talisman is just a piece of art or nice calligraphy. Initiation is to open up the communication channel between the person and the Deities of a specific Taoist Sect.
The person must have received a collection of talisman that has being passed down through the generations after they are initiated and qualified to use the talisman.
After the above 2 criteria is fulfilled, the person can only be considered potentially qualified to use talisman. Why only potential? Because the person would then need to ingest more than 100 types of talisman - ranging from protection, summon, suppress, cast off, balancing and also controlling types of talisman into their body upon qualifying to use talisman.
After which every month they would need to ingest about 60 talisman to maintain and build up their spiritual qi reserve.
If the person is a bit lazy or likes to procrastinate, very soon they would not have the required spiritual reserve do to the various rituals. Just like a computer, no matter how good your CPU is (meaning the lineage transmission) if you have small size RAM, you cannot perform complex task and are easily drained.
Like any other religion, we are just the medium - in talisman execution however we have more freedom to deal and do spiritual process as compared to other types of spiritual Taoist as the rituals and process are usually locked and governed by the Deities.
Upon qualifying to draw the talisman, then comes the procedures of drawing the talisman.
1. Brush, water, ink, cinnabar must all be cleanse spiritually before they can be use to draw talisman.
2. Each piece of paper that is going to be used must be cleanse off through a specific mantra.
1. Before drawing, the person have to request the deities to descend their energy on to the person by chanting specific mantra of the lineage. This is to inform the deities, that one of the disciple is now requesting the energy to do a spiritual process.
1. Each specific symbol on the talisman HEAD, BODY and BELT have a specific code and mantra that must be chanted while drawing the talisman. For example, when you see nice ribbon on the talisman, actually it has a specifc chant that the person must do when drawing it. It is similar to unlocking a specific door using a specific key code. Without this, the talisman is a useless piece of imitation.
2. After completing the talisman, then we would need to write different codes either in request or summoning layer upon layer on to the 符但 NERVE (black dot on the bottom) of the talisman. The NERVE is the soul of the talisman, if mistakes are done, it is also render useless. Therefore absolute concentration is needed, which also is one of the factor to determines how effective the talisman when it is being used. When all is done, then the drawing process is considered finish.
Officiating and Seal of Talisman:
1. When the drawing is complete, then we would need to put the deity seal 神印 onto the talisman. Again the person need request the deities energy to descend and then would chant specific mantra to seal different sections of the talisman.
Reporting and Energizing 敕符:
1. When all above is complete, the person will then have to take the talisman to the front of the deity and do the official reporting verbally through specific edicts. It is to inform the deities and the spiritual world that a specific talisman is being drawn.
2. After the reporting procedure, then the person would need to request the deities to descend the energy through them to energize the talisman at hand.
After all the above process, then only the talisman can be used or ingest. Hence, it is not as simple you may have expected.
Conventional talisman that is available on books or yearly Chinese almanac will not have the effect of a hand drawn talisman. By one simple reason alone, as those talisman have not gone through the official required process to call it a Talisman. Some even more outrageous as to ask the public to print out directly from the web!
I find it very peculiar and sad, when some of my Western students of Feng Shui or Qi Men Dun Jia decide to attend classes on how to draw talisman. There was even an incident last year, that one of my student pass me a Fu De Zheng Shen talisman 福德正神 in one of my teaching tour in Europe as he has attended the How to Draw Talisman Class. I do not know whether to laugh or cry, in the end I just accept it politely as a calligraphy effort by him.
So next time, when you request a talisman or being handed a talisman from a Taoist practitioner, learn to appreciate the work that it took to hand you the 'physical blessing' of the Deities.