My friends at the Unity Shoppe asked me to identify an odd-looking stick thing with a head like a padded cloud (called a plaquette), with a long hardwood handle in the shape of a flat "s." The workmanship is beautiful, with jade at both of the ends, as well as jade characters down the shaft. The object sits in a padded bottomed glass case with a carved rosewood stand, something ceremonial, at 20 inches long. The characters may say something positive and uplifting, like "the gods wish you a long life," or refer to something more metaphoric, like "pine and crane," or "phoenix and peony." Pine means old age, and peony, wealth. One of the glories of Chinese works of art is that the form, the words and the philosophy of the object reflect each other, as we will see in this article.
This object is an early 20th century regal Chinese scepter, but in ancient times in China, this object originated as a simple, plebeian back scratcher. Its progress to the scepter of kings and emperors follows a simple trajectory: being able to scratch an itch makes us happy, especially when that itch is unreachable. (Who doesn't feel good after a good scratch?) Thus, it acquired its name: a laotoule, meaning, simply, the "old man's joy." I can see Grandpa smiling after a good rub.
These predecessors to the regal jade scepter were simple bamboo sticks, used to scratch an itch, to catch things out of reach, or to point to something (more about that later). By the 15th century, Chinese emperors began to order these useful back scratchers in gold, crystal and jade. So many types of precious materials were ordered by emperors and rulers for hundreds of years that the simple laotoule was renamed, when appropriately elegant, a Ruyi, literally the "as you wish."
The Unity Shoppe Ruyi is in a box that probably housed better versions that stayed in the royal courts besides the emperor's throne or bed. Not only did the emperor scratch his own back, but also his concubine of choice in bed gave this pleasure as well.
Emperors gave expensive and elaborate Ruyi to esteemed commoners as well. Confucius received many, as did his descendants. The Mansion of Confucius in Shandong displays many of these, as do many palaces built during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).
The value of this object is, of course, in the wonderful story, but also in the materials used, which in this case is nephrite, not as valuable as some unbelievable Ruyi. The Unity Shoppe's Ruyi was, in fact, designed for the tourist market, as I can see the glue used to attach the nephrite (never done for the highly discriminating Chinese connoisseur). Favorites of mine are made of almost transparent peach tree wood or a piece of pale celadon stone. A carved celadon jade Ruyi can sell for $12,000. Many bear the image and carvings of Buddha, and I wonder what Buddha would think of scratching someone's back. One, made of gold, has an inlaid back-scratching pad made of celadon resembling two peaches. If you'd like to spend some serious cash on a regal back scratcher, consider one of celadon jade with a carved relief scene of a river landscape, at 17 inches, sold for $152,000. Many Ruyi have Wanfu markings, which stands for 100,000 blessings. If you really want a great scratch, a Ruyi of green-gray jade is carved as a thorny branch with a flat tree fungus the shape of the plaquette. Some are inlaid with multicolored jades in bright green pale green with accents of mother of pearl and tortoise shell, very showy.
Treasured, as always, these Ruyi were royal gifts to the Emperor Qianlong (1700) whose ministers went over the top for his 60th birthday, presenting him with 60 solid gold filigree Ruyi. On her 60th birthday on 1894, the Empress Cixi was gifted 81 Ruyi, symbolic because 81 is divisible 9 times by 9, the most precious and prescient number for indications of a long life.
Finally, although the Unity Shoppe is a family-centric business, the Ruyi was used for another function besides being a back scratcher. At night, the Emperor would point his Ruyi toward the lucky concubine of choice, and she would follow. This Ruyi is worth $600.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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