'As You Will'
Perceptions of the Chinese Ruyi Wand
Ruyi wands are, today, an almost inescapable part of Chinese artistic culture. They are featured everywhere from architecture to Oriental rug patterns to decorative knots to corporate logos. It is strange, then, that the origin of the ruyi wand is a murky and hotly debated topic among scholars, and practically miraculous that the ruyi wand itself has remained relevant despite its significance and uses shifting through the centuries drastically.
Figure 1: Lot 30, a Chicken Bone Jade Ruyi Wand Dating from the 18th Century, estimated at $3,000 - 5,000 USD, from Oakridge Auction Gallery's May 23-24, 2020 Asian Art & Antiques auction.
The Chinese term ruyi is a compound of ru 如 "as; like; such as; as if; for example; supposing; be like; be similar; accord with" and yi 意 "wish; will; desire; intention; suggestion; thought; idea; meaning; imagination", creating a compound homophone meaning “to be used as desired or according to one’s wishes.”
No one is quite certain how the ruyi wand got this name, and anthropologist Berthold Laufer wrote in the early 20th century that the Chinese accounts of the ruyi are "more unsatisfactory" than for any other object in Chinese culture. Scholar Herbert Giles quoted the Song dynasty archaeologist Zhao Xigu that the ruyi "was originally made of iron, and was used 'for pointing the way' and also 'for guarding against the unexpected,' positing its use for self-defence, in this time functional as a short sword or club. This theory is also promulgated by Ming dynasty scholar Wen Zhenheng in his 7-year long magnum opus “Treatise on Superfluous Things” that was published in 1627. This 27 volume, 269 chapter work is encyclopedic in its attention to the details of what Wen Zhenheng saw as frivolous and wasteful, and its cranky author’s character is pervasive throughout.
On ruyi wands, Zhenheng writes: “The ruyi was used in ancient times to give directions or to protect oneself from the unexpected. It was for this reason that it was made or iron, and not on the basis of strictly aesthetic considerations. If you can obtain an old iron ruyi inlaid with gold and silver that sparkles now and then, and if it has an ancient dull color, this is the best. As for ruyi made of natural branches or from bamboo and so on, these are all worthless.” It Is not entirely surprising that Zhenheng chose to end his life in a hunger strike in a protest against what he saw as the decline of landscape architecture theory, his great passion. Alternative theories for the origin of the ruyi wand include as primitive backscratchers “to be used as desired” and as Buddhist ceremonial scepters imported from India.
Figure 2: Lot 115, a Chinese Hardwood Ruyi Wand with White Jade, 18th Century, estimated at $4,000 - 6,000 USD, from Oakridge Auction Gallery's June 2020 Fine Asian Art & Antiques auction.
While the origins may never been known for certain, ruyi wands had already become an important tool of court life by the Han and Jin dynasties, though they were called tanbing 談柄 "conversation baton" and used much like a talking stick to signify the holder’s right to speak. This practice is traced back to the Buddhist use of the ruyi, and Chinese historian J. Leroy Davidson posits this as their origin, stating in 1950 that "there seems no doubt that the primary and original function of the ju-i was that of a scepter qualifying the holder to "take the floor." Its origin was probably in India where the branch of a tree seems to have served a similar function. Any other purposes the ju-i served, such as a note tablet, honorific insignia, good luck gift, or even back scratcher, were merely later accruals."
In the Northern Wei period the ruyi had become a symbol of political rule, and by the end of the sixth century, not only was the ruyi common at court, but it had even begun to take on emblematic significance as the mark of a ruler, though it was also used by officials and monks. By the Tang dynasty ruyi were being given as gifts on auspicious occasions to indicate good wishes and bestow good luck and congratulations upon the receiver. They also retained their symbolism as emblems of power and authority, and were used to take notes in the presence of the Emperor.
Figure 3: Lot 309, Chinese Lingzhi Ruyi Huangyang Scepter, 19th Century, estimated at $2,000 - 3,000 USD, from Oakridge Auction Gallery's June 2020 Fine Asian Art & Antiques auction.
While records show that ruyi made during the previous dynasties were sometimes carved from expensive materials, none quite reached the lavish and luxuriency that the art form enjoyed during the Qing dynasty. It was then that ruyi scepters became luxuriant symbols of political power that were regularly used in imperial ceremonies, and were highly valued as gifts to and from the Emperor of China. Since 3 is considered a lucky number in Chinese culture, Qing craftsmen elaborated the traditional handle and head type ruyi into two-headed sanxiang-ruyi 三鑲如意 "3-inlay ruyi" with precious stones set in both heads and middle of the handle. The Qianlong Emperor presented a ruyi to the British ambassador George Macartney in 1793, and in his description "It is a whitish, agate-looking stone, about a foot and a half long, curiously carved, and highly prized by the Chinese, but to me it does not appear in itself to be of any great value."
General Macartney’s perceptions aside, Oakridge has had great success in selling ruyi wands, and is currently in possession of 3 very different examples, pictured above. Such variety and attention to aesthetics is perhaps the antithesis of Wen Zhenheng’s ruyi-based preferences, but the endurance of the art form through millennia is a testament to its enduring appeal, significance, and collectability.
About the Author
Jennifer Clary joined Oakridge Auction Gallery in 2016, after pursuing both a Bachelor of Arts and a Master’s degree in Art History. She has extensive experience working hands-on with East Asian art with a specialization in Chinese art and antiques. Ms. Clary is currently pursuing a second Master's degree in Arts Management at George Mason University.