The Blessings of the Ruyi Scepter
By Gu Feng & Dan Shan
Image: The Collection of National Palace Museum
A beloved symbol of auspiciousness, the ruyi scepter has existed since ancient times. Its popularity peaked during the reign of Emperor Qianlong in the Qing dynasty. Today, the ruyi scepter remains a valuable and sought-after collectors’ item. It embodies the realization of one’s wishes.
The word ruyi means “as one wishes.” In the annals of history it has also been affectionately referred to as “a bosom friend” and “a conversation baton,” the latter possibly owing to the scepter being held by the literati and nobility while they conversed at social gatherings.
There are various accounts of its origin. It may have first served simply as a backscratcher: The ends of some are shaped like a palm with bent fingers to provide a good scratch when held overturned. There are also accounts stating that the scepter was used as a ceremonial object and brought to China by Indian Buddhist monks. The ruyi scepter is featured in Chinese Buddhist art dating to ancient timesat the Longmen Caves in Henan, as well as in the murals atthe Mogao Caves in Gansu. It also features in images of Manjusri Bodhisattva. Buddhist scriptures are inscribed on ancient ruyi scepters.
Poets of various Chinese dynasties such as the Tang and Song made reference to the ruyi scepter in their poems, indicating its significance to art, culture and spirituality during different time periods when either Buddhism or Taoism was widespread. Scholars and performing artists were known to use the scepter as a means of keeping musical time for performing arts such as dance.
It was also used in imperial ceremonies as a symbol of imperial political power, and in military contexts. In a popular historical tale, a Southern-dynasty army commander led his troops into battle with his ruyi scepter in hand, emerged victorious and was treated to a hero’s homecoming.
Throughout the dynasties, the ruyi scepter evolved in design. It was favored by scholars during the Wei and Jin dynasties when it was made of jade and shaped like a palm with curled fingers. Moving into the Tang dynasty, it became more elaborate, embellished with gold and precious gems, and was fashioned into other shapes including a lingzhi mushroom and a heart. The lingzhi shape meant wealth and longevity, while a heart-shaped ruyi scepter meant having everything one could wish for.
During the Song dynasty, materials such as crystals, coral, agate, and agarwood, in addition to precious gems, were used to create stunning scepters. The ruyi reached an aesthetic peak during the Ming and Qing dynasties with an even greater array of expensive materials being used in its creation, and intricate carvings appearing on the precious gemstones decorating it. The carving of peaches was symbolic of longevity, persimmons ensured a smooth-sailing life, pomelos symbolized having many descendants, fish meant abundance, a bat meant prosperity, and elephants represented auspiciousness.
Moving into the Tang dynasty, it became more elaborate, embellished with gold and precious gems…
The ruyi scepter was long used as a tribute article that one would offer to the imperial family. Also, in important imperial ceremonies, it was presented as a tribute article to foreign dignitaries and court officials. Inside the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, there are multiple ruyi scepters which were bestowed by the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty adored the ruyi scepter and it was embraced by the general populace during that period. The carvings adorning it became more refined. Many poems of the period allude to the high price that the ruyi scepter commanded.
Emperor Qianlong himself wrote several poems in praise of the scepter’s beauty. Throughout the imperial palace, ruyi scepters were prominently displayed. During his reign, thousands of scepters were displayed in the homes of court officials. A Qing-dynasty imperial inventory revealed a total of 1,621 ruyi-scepter designs.
The son of Emperor Qianlong, Emperor Jiaqing, followed in his father’s footsteps in his love for the ruyi scepter and would literally sing its praises. In fact, from the fifth year of his reign till the year he passed away, Emperor Jiaqing sang or recited poems about the ruyi scepter on the first day of every New Year.
When the Qing dynasty ended and China became a republic, wealthy families continued to cherish and display the scepter. The ruyi scepter eventually became a common desktop display in the homes of people from all walks of life, treasured for its auspicious feng shui.
Ruyi in the Heart
The ruyi scepter remains a much-loved symbol of wish-fulfilment and blessings. Modern creativity has led to departures from the traditional forms. For example, it may be carved on a round piece of jade and fashioned into a pendant so that one can wear auspiciousness close to the heart.
If one has a compassionate heart that carries the true symbolism of the ruyi scepter, then one wishes for blessings for all beings. Through the centuries and across the miles, the ruyi reminds us that those who are truly blessedand auspicious are those who desire that beauty and abundance touch the lives of all.