PROPERTY OF PRINCESS RAMA MALLA, NEPAL
Ruyi sceptres of this magnificent size are rarely fashioned in jade, given the scarcity of boulders large enough to make objects of such impressive dimensions. The present sceptre is also exceptional for the fine quality of the jade which is of even white tone enhanced by minor russet staining providing a naturalistic look to the stone. The high level of artistry and craftsmanship is evident in the fine quality of the carving and the decoration that has been carefully chosen for its auspicious connotations.
Ruyi sceptres, by definition, are highly auspicious objects favoured for their shape and ornamentation which represent the propitious expression ‘as you wish’. Their origin remains a matter of speculation, with the popular belief being that their shape evolved from back-scratchers commonly made in bamboo or bone. However, their function is likely to have derived from hu tablets that were items of authority and social rank held in the hands of officials in ancient China. This theory is supported by the mention of a ruyi sceptre being used as a tool of command in Fang Xuanling’s (579-648), Jin Shu (The Book of the Jin Dynasty), the official history of the Jin Dynasty (265-420). The earliest excavated example of a ruyi sceptre is recorded in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) encyclopaedia Shiwu jiyuan (Recordings of the Origins of Things) compiled by Gao Cheng. Gao mentions a sceptre made of white jade and carved with dragons, tigers and cicadas found in a copper box excavated from a Warring States period (475-221 BC) tomb site at Moling in Jiangsu province. While archaeologists have yet to discover the actual piece, if Gao’s listing is to be believed, the Moling jade sceptre is the earliest known. For more information on the origins of sceptres see Yuan Te-hsing’s article in Masterpieces of Chinese Ju-I Scepters in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1974, pp. 86-90. During the Tang and Song dynasties, sceptres took on a new role as ritual implements in Buddhist and Daoist ceremonies. However, with the decline of Buddhism and a renewed interest in Confucian ideology from the Song period, sceptres became closely associated with Daoism with the head increasingly rendered in the form of the longevity lingzhi fungus. They also became highly ornamented and were designed in any shape and material that was considered suitable for use as a secular good-luck charm. By the Ming period sceptres were often presented as gifts among the official-gentry class, while under the Qing, especially from Yongzheng’s reign, they became imperial objects that were bestowed by the emperor to his worthy officers and loyal subjects as rewards. Even foreign kings and ambassadors were presented with ruyi, such as the famous jade example given to King George III and senior members of the first British embassy to China by the Qianlong emperor in 1793. Both Yongzheng and Qianlong had themselves painted holding sceptres, but the latter was particularly fond of them and owned an extensive collection, a number of which were included in the exhibition China. The Three Emperors, 1662-1795, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2006, cat.nos. 273-282.
The decoration of the five bats and the shou character on the head of the present sceptre, combined with the wan symbol and the beribboned qing on the handle together form the rebus wan fu qing shou, meaning ‘Long and Happy Life’. The three circular bosses at the end of the sceptre may represent the Triad (shen), described by Sima Qian (145 or 135 BC – 86 BC) in Tian guan shu (Book of Celestial Offices) as the heart of the seven western lunar lodges (the Tuft and Triad), or possibly embody the three stars that form the constellation popularly known as the ‘Oxherd’ with the brightest and largest star (the Aquilae) at its centre. Either way, the stars are celestial markers that epitomize the most important philosophical concept concerning the legitimacy of any Chinese ruler, the ‘Mandate of Heaven’. For further reading on the iconography of heaven and its pictorial depictions see Lillian Lan-ying Tseng, Picturing Heaven in Early China, Cambridge, Mass., 2011, p. 248-277.
While all sceptres are unique and no two identical pieces are recorded, this sceptre is comparable to a white jade example of similar size, the head carved with a stylized shou character roundel encircled by four beribboned bajixiang emblems, from the collection of Edward T. Chow, sold in these rooms, 11th April 2008, lot 2835; and another of related decoration but much smaller in size (38 cm) included in the National Palace Museum exhibition Masterpieces of Chinese Ju-I Scepters in the National Palace Museum op.cit., cat. no. 4. Another comparable example, from the De An Tang collection and exhibited at the Yongshougong (Palace of Eternal Longevity) located in the Forbidden City in 2004, was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 29th May 2007, lot 1598, also of smaller size (36 cm); and a further piece from the collection of the Nabeshima Family, presented by the House of an Imperial Prince in 1921, was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 27th October 2003, lot 829.
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