Ruyi, Granters of Wishes

In China, there have been numbers of "Auspicious Pattern" that is popular in folk decorative arts for thousand years and has played an important role in Chinese traditional art treasure-house. The ruyi scepter, with its unique style and artistic language of distinctive national features, is one of the auspicious items that enjoys great popularity in folk culture and has been widely used in engraving, brocade, painting, printing and so on.

Ruyi (literally meaning “as you wishes”),  is a wish-granting wand with the shape of flat “S” and a head like the sacred lingzhi(“fungus of immortality”, a mythological mushroom that was said to give eternal life.). It may be made of any of a wide range of valuable materials: gold, jade, crystal, agate, coral, agolloch eaglewood and bamboo. The workmanship is often quite meticulous: it is carved with patterns in incision, low-relief or openwork and sometimes inlaid with silver, gold and gems. Ruyi is decorated with a number of symbols including castanets, gourd, fan and peach. The designs may be simple or very elaborate but invariably convey messages of good wishes, such as "pine and crane" (standing for vigorous old age), "immortals wishing you longevity", "phoenix and peony" (standing for wealth, happiness and prosperity), and the like.

The ruyi, it is said, was born out of a common Chinese article of household use- the itch-scratcher. This is a stick about 1.5 feet long, with one end in the form of a miniature hand with bent fingers. Holding it, a man can scratch the itches on his own back and thus get a feeling of well-being. It is still used by some people in China today. Usually made of commonplace wood or bamboo, it is popularly called by the descriptive name laotoule ("old man's joy").

The itch-scratcher, being a joy, began to be made of more valuable materials for those who could afford it. But apart from being an art object, it continued to be used for its original purpose until sometime during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It gradually became a pure ornamental object called ruyi ("as you wish"). The right place for the elevated and transformed itch-scratcher was now on the bedside table of the imperial sleeping chamber, by the side of the throne…to be appreciated daily by the emperor and his numerous wives.

It is still difficult to pinpoint the time of the first emergence of the ruyi, although no archaeological finds of them date from before the Qing Dynasty. They are much valued but commonly seen objects of decoration in the old Qing palaces, but outside of Beijing one rarely comes across them in provincial museums.