Many Chinese greeting words used in daily life or during festivals include two Chinese characters “Ru” and “Yi” (literally “as desired”), like “good luck”, “all the best” and “happy lunar new year”. “Ruyi”, as our casual and habitual use, actually carries deep and rich cultural connotation since ancient times. As a metaphysical concept, the word “Ruyi” appeared as early as in “The Book of Han”. At that time it was not only used literally to indicate “as desired”, but also as the given name of a member of the royal family Liu. As a secular concept, “Ruyi” was one of the most fascinating material objects left in ancient life.
“Ruyi” has a close association with today’s “back scratcher” and “claw stick”, a back-scratching tool recorded in ancient Chinese literature. Known from various ancient documents, “Ruyi” was used by monks for recording Buddhist scriptures while preaching or as a tool for scratching the back. According to the archaeological excavation, Ruyi emerged as early as pre-Qin Dynasty. The materials of paintings and murals hint that Tang Dynasty was the turning point in the development of Ruyi forms. At this time, Ruyi separated gradually from its practical functions and became art objects with deeper meanings and more sophisticated craft, while the “back scratcher” continues its original practical function and basic forms until today. They have developed into two different kinds of objects.
With the collapse of the aristocratic society after late Tang Dynasty, Ruyi, once used for aristocratic debate, lost its influence. Until the Song Dynasty where scholarly men’s social status was improved, their admiration for classical aesthetics were valued and eventually led to the popularity of Ruyi as an essential part of Chinese cultural life. In developing from an ordinary daily use to a symbol for upper class’s status and identity, Buddhism played a very important role. In the late Ming Dynasty, Ruyi served as an indispensable part of the furnishing of a scholar’s study.
In the Qing Dynasty, the development of Ruyi reached its peak, and became both the representative of the literati’s identity and their curios. Although similar as Ruyi, Zhuwei (deer-tail) performed not only the practical function of dusting off as a duster or bringing cool air as a fan in the old times, but also the role of indicating the bearers’ distinguished identity, such as leaders or scholars. However, while Zhuwei declined after Song Dynasty, Ruyi kept its popularity in the Qing Dynasty thanks to its varied forms, improved material and craftsmanship as well as its abundant auspicious connotations. Meanwhile, Ruyi related ornamentation has been widely applied in the field of arts and crafts. Nowadays, Ruyi patterns still play an active part in our daily life with the long lasting history of Chinese auspicious culture. The words containing “Ruyi”, therefore, often come as the best blessings for Chinese people.