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Ruyi: From imperial object to symbol of good fortune

Updated: Apr 3

The Chinese ruyi is a fascinating piece of decorative art, both a powerful symbol and a ceremonial object. Its name, "ruyi", means "may your wishes come true" in Chinese, and it represents luck, prosperity, happiness and power. In the past, it was presented to the emperor as an auspicious gift and was used in important ceremonies. Today, it continues to be a popular and decorative symbol.

Ruyi sceptre, Qin period (221 - 210 BC), jade, held by the National History Museum in Taipei.

The distant origins of the ruyi are linked to the introduction of Buddhism in China and the humility of monastic life, as it seems to have been derived from the scrapers used by monks, who were often depicted holding them in their hands. Over the centuries, ruyi became precious objects and, under the Qing dynasty (1615-1911), they became an esteemed gift, a symbol of power and wealth for high-ranking officials and the aristocracy. The imperial family, of course, was the main purchaser of these objects, on the occasion of special festivities (New Year celebrations, birthdays), for use in palace ceremonies or as gifts to their ambassadors. The emperor Qianlong (1711-1795), a great art collector and patron, amassed several thousand.

Ruyi sceptre, China, 18th century, Jade, appraised by Gauchet Art Asiatique for Couteau-Begarie, sold for €16900

Because of their use, ruyi were elaborately decorated with complex motifs and loaded with propitiatory symbols and good fortune. It's worth noting that they were made from precious materials (jade, precious metals, semi-precious stones, coral, glass), but examples in lacquer are less common.

In general, ruyi consisted of a handle or an elongated stem, topped with a bud in the shape of a cloud, a heart or even a lingzhi, a mushroom symbolising longevity that is very common in Chinese art. The peony (peonia arborea) is a symbol of spring, but it is also associated with royal power and honour or distinction in social or administrative ranks. There is also the chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum indicum), an autumn flower that symbolises longevity and alludes to the ninth month of the Chinese year. The plum blossom is a symbol of winter, since it blooms during the cold season, and a motif that alludes to resistance to the elements and, once again, longevity.

Ruyi sceptre, China, first half of the 19th century, serpentine, appraised by Gauchet Art Asiatique for Million Asium, sold for €6800, photo credits: Yann Girault

In Chinese visual culture, the magnolia represents feminine softness and beauty, and the month of May. Finally, in some regions, these flowers are associated with curious asymmetrical, hollow rocks. These are known as "Taihu stones", and are linked to the tradition of literary artists and are very common in Chinese art. They are also a symbol of longevity. All these allusions to prestige, luck, longevity, seasonal rhythms and the feminine values of beauty and gentleness, which are interwoven here, are recurrent in Chinese art - ceramics, lacquer, textiles - and cannot be attributed to a particular type of owner or production context. They constitute a repertoire that is entirely representative of the archetypal values of Chinese culture, and complete a body of work that combines a quest for technical virtuosity with a love of the symbolic.

Wenchangdi, Taoist deity of literature holding a ruyi sceptre, Qing period (1644 - 1912), porcelain, kept at the Musée Guimet in Paris.

Gauchet Art Asiatique, a specialist in Asian art for over 20 years, offers an accurate and reliable appraisal of your ruyi. Our team of experts, led by Jean Gauchet, is highly qualified to examine and analyse the unique characteristics of each ruyi, including its style, material, provenance and state of conservation.

When you entrust your ruyi to us, you benefit from a professional, confidential service and personalised support. We will be happy to provide you with expert advice on the care and conservation of your object.

Whether you are a passionate collector or simply the owner of a family ruyi, Gauchet Art Asiatique is your trusted partner for the expertise of your ruyi. Contact us today for a free estimate.

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