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From humble backscratcher to noble scepter

BACKSCRATCHER, scepter, talisman, conversation baton, Ruyi ritual objects symbolize power and good fortune, writes Nie Xin.

The word ruyi has an auspicious meaning - "as you wish." It is often used with jixiang to wish someone happiness, good fortune and prosperity.

Ruyi is a long, S-shaped decorative object. Originally it may have been a backscratcher but evolved into a ceremonial scepter, ritual object and Buddhist talisman symbolizing power and good fortune in Chinese folklore. Buddhist saints are frequently depicted holding Ruyi.

Ruyi was also used as "conversation baton" held by rulers during official ceremonies.

Fashioned of many kinds of materials, including jade, Ruyi is shaped like a shallow S, with a long handle and larger head carved to resemble a heart, fist, cloud, lingzhi (ganoderma) fungus or other auspicious shape. The smaller end is also carved.

Not many authentic Ruyi show up in the antique market, though there are many reproductions. Many Ruyi are exhibited in the Palace Museum in Beijing.

Yu Ruyi or jade Ruyi are famous, but the talismen also have been crafted from wood, bamboo, gold, silver, iron, rhinoceros horn, lacquer, crystal and precious materials. Some are inlaid and intricately carved.

As jade in China symbolizes virtue and merit, jade Ruyi combine the meanings of both good fortune and moral excellence. They are part of the Chinese culture of luck.

Dragon carvings were favored by rulers.

Other symbols include bats, peaches and flowers, all symbolizing good fortune.

"The peach is the symbol of longevity in China, and it is one of the most common patterns in Chinese antiques," says Lu Maofeng who owns an antique shop on Yongjia Road in Shanghai.

The origins of Ruyi are unclear. It may have been brought from India by Buddhist monks and there's a Sanskrit word analu to describe it.

It also may have been a backscratcher that later morphed into a Buddhist symbol of authority.

Most people don't know much about Ruyi but came to know of it by watching movies and TV series about ancient history.

In meetings in the imperial palace, nobles held Ruyi scepters of authority.

During the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), Ruyi started to be used as a conversation baton by scholars and upper class people on social occasions.

It became very popular during Southern and Northern dynasties (420-589 AD).

Gradually Ruyi scepters became symbols of luxury and prized emblems of political power and wealth, especially during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

They were also used as tribute and auspicious gifts and were highly valued as gifts to and from the emperor.

"To collectors of Ruyi, besides the high market price and aesthetic value, the symbol of good fortune is another important reason to collect," says Lu.

The Ruyi image has been frequently used in Asian art, traditional and modern architecture. Ruyi with a head of carved clouds have been painted on ceilings. Figures holding Ruyi are not uncommon.

"For aesthetic and material considerations, Ruyi made of iron are among the best," says Lu. "An old iron Ruyi inlaid with gold and silver is very valuable. If it also looks old, it's even more precious."

In today's antique market in China, most Ruyi are from the Qing Dynasty. Ruyi from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) are very rare.

The collectors always should be cautious.

Prices of genuine antiques vary depending on quality and materials.

"From 10,000 (US$8,927) to several million yuan, the price depends on age and material," says Lu.


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