Student Journal: What is Ruyi?

 

Student Journal: What is Ruyi?

Wendi Yu, 7 November 2017

When you look at the vitrine that is filled with a set of ceremonial keys from the Nationality Rooms, an ornate key with gold accents will catch your eyes. Made for the Chinese Room, this ceremonial key is designed as a Ruyi (scepter), with a curved shape and a head fashioned like a cloud. But do you know what a Ruyi is, and what it represents in traditional Chinese culture?

The Chinese term Ruyi is a compound of Ru “as; like” and Yi “wish; desire”, which had been used as early as the former Han Dynasty (206 BC – 24 AD). The Hanshu biography first recorded that Ruyi means “as you wish” in a quotation of scholar Jing Fang (77-37 BCE). There are two basic theories of the origin of the Ruyi. One is that Ruyi originated from Sanskrit Anuruddha, “a ceremonial scepter” used by Buddhist monks in India, who later brought it to China. The other is that the Ruyi was invented as a back scratcher because it had an apparent ability to reach parts of the human body that there normally impossible to reach.

During its historical evolution, however, Ruyi became luxurious symbols of political power in the Qing dynasty (1644-1912 AD). A Ruyi was regularly used in imperial ceremonies, and they were awarded as gifts to and from the Emperor. Because of its elegant style, the Ruyi was also popular among the literati class.

A Ruyi could be made from various materials, including jade, ivory, metal, coral, wood, lacquer, crystal, and precious gems. Craftsmen fashioned the head of each Ruyi as cloud, fist, flower, Lingzhi mushroom, or a bat, which all symbolize power and good fortune. Since the design of the Chinese Room in the Cathedral of Learning was inspired by the Forbidden City, which was the Emperor’s palace for more than 600 years, the shape of Ruyi was used as a model for its ceremonial key to represent the dynastic history of China. The Chinese characters "Ruyi" were also incised on its head, making the appearance of the key as an important motif of Chinese culture unmistakable.

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