Ruyi sceptres, by definition, are highly auspicious objects favoured for their shape which represents the propitious expression ‘as you wish’. The auspiciousness of such sceptres was emphasised through carefully selected motifs, as seen on the present which is carved with a pair of catfish and peony, symbolising ‘May you have an abundance of riches and honour year after year’. The Qianlong Emperor was particularly fond of them and owned an extensive collection, a number of which is held in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Gugong bowuyuan wenwu cangpin daxi. Yuqi juan/Compendium of Collections in the Palace Museum: Jade, vol. 8: Qing, Beijing, 2011, pls 50-91, including one carved with a pair of catfish emerging from water, pl. 51, and one with an oval head like the present, pl. 79.
Further related white jade sceptres, but with the more common ruyi-shaped head, include one, carved on the head with bats and a shou character, in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the Museum’s exhibition Masterpieces of Chinese Ju-I Sceptres in the National Palace Museum, 1974, cat. no. 4; another from the De An Tang collection, included in the exhibition A Romance with Jade, Palace Museum, Beijing, 2004, cat. no. 20, and sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 29th May 2007, lot 1598; and a larger sceptre, from the collections of His Highness Maharaja Sir Padma Shumshere Jung Bahadur Rana and the Princess Rama Malla, sold in our London rooms, 15th May 2013, lot 5.
The origin of ruyi sceptres 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, they became imperial objects that were bestowed by the emperor to his worthy officers and loyal subjects as rewards.
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