Ruan Liuqi and His Ingenious Rings
My father, Ruan Liuqi, was born in Shanghai in 1900. He only had one year of education and didn’t have much of a profession. In Suzhou, our family—mother, father, five brothers, and one sister—rented a room in a traditional walled compound on Wenyuan Lane. We lived there for several dozen years, and that’s where father died in 1962.
When we were kids, we lived from hand to mouth. Father supported our family by selling candy and dried fruit in front of schools, and sometimes mom went out with him. We children used to help father with his sales too. When school was out we did seasonal business, such as selling watermelons on hot summer days. In January we sold lanterns for the Lantern Festival—and we were very good at making them in the shapes of butterflies and rabbits as well as regular lanterns.
One day in the late 1930s, father noticed some schoolgirls playing with a nine linked rings puzzle. So he started making the puzzle out of wire when he wasn’t very busy. He got ideas for other wire puzzles from a children’s newspaper with designs for kids to use in handicraft class, and he invented other designs on his own. Even though father didn’t have much education, he loved to use his head and his hands.
At first father sold wire puzzles as a sideline to his candy business. But eventually he realized that he could support us by only selling the nine linked rings and his own creations, so he stopped selling candy. He had dozens of different designs that were really just variations of the nine linked rings. And he gave a name to each puzzle, usually describing its shape. He also sold little wire tricycles and folding baskets.
Every evening father came home and reported the business of the day. He went over what sold well, what did not sell, and what he needed to make more of. And after dinner our whole family crowded around the table making ingenious rings. Sister Hedi polished the wire with sandpaper; some of the brothers made wire rings; others made handles. We made whatever was needed, and we put the parts in a basket that father kept under his stand. This way the parts didn’t take up much space, and when father assembled them at his stand he would always attract a crowd.
All of us helped father with his puzzles when we were kids. We sold simple puzzles in front of primary schools, harder ones in front of middle schools and colleges. Father invented the classical designs, such as the teapot and pagoda, but we all learned to design puzzles to resemble common objects in life. If we happened to see a cat, we made a cat puzzle; if we saw an airplane, we made an airplane puzzle.
Around 1956 Yu Chong’en found out about the puzzles when father was selling them at the gate of the middle school where he taught chemistry. He would come over and chat with father, and they became friends. Teacher Yu bought each kind of puzzle father made, but he couldn’t solve some of them so he asked Fourth Brother Lihai to come to his home to show him how to solve them. He visited father many times while he was writing Ingenious Rings. In 1958 the book was published in Shanghai, and Teacher Yu expressed gratitude to father in the preface.
In 1947,when I was 13 years old, I went to Shanghai to apprentice with a relative who was a shoemaker, but a year later I returned to Suzhou to help father with his puzzle business. In 1951 I moved back to Shanghai and then to Wuxi, and I traveled to just about every city and town in Jiangsu Province making and selling puzzles. Not only students bought them, but also teachers because they believed the puzzles helped in the development of intelligence. In 1958 I was offered a regular job at the Wuxi No. 1 Plastics Factory and eventually stopped making puzzles—except occasionally to make a nine linked rings puzzle or twist a name out of wire for one of my good friends.
By the late 1950s, we brothers all had regular jobs, and Sister Hedi was the only one left to help father. Later father quit selling puzzles too. Father died from cancer of the esophagus in January 1962—only six months after it was discovered. But he had passed on his ingenious rings craft to his sons.
For many years my brothers and I worked at our jobs and raised our families. After retiring, I realized that I was getting old and all my children had their own jobs. Nobody in our family was even thinking of making puzzles, and the craft wasn’t being passed on. Ingenious rings became little more than a memory. But making ingenious rings was such an important part of our lives as children and young adults that none of us ever forgot how to do it. The designs have remained right here in my stomach to this day!
In 1997 with the encouragement of Wei Zhang and Peter Rasmussen, Ruan Genquan began making ingenious rings puzzles again, and he passed on this family craft to his children and grandchildren. Since then members of Ruan family have carried on the craft and have started successful puzzle businesses in Shanghai, Nanjing, Suzhou, and Wuxi. Today the family is known in China and internationally for its ingenious puzzle creations.
Yu Chong’en. Qiao huan (Ingenious Rings). Shanghai, 1958.
Yu Chong’en, Ruan Genquan, and Zhang Wei. Jiulianhuan (Nine Linked Rings). Beijing, 1999.