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January 15, 2012

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Leaving no inkstone unturned

INKSTONES are considered one of the "four treasures of study" and have long been admired by artists, collectors and royalty in China. One woman has devoted much of her life to the stones.

Cheng Lijun has devoted much of her life to carving, collecting and selling She inkstones - small stone mortars for making and holding ink.

"I just want to be buried with my inkstones after I pass away," Cheng says, sitting in her tiny inkstone shop in Beijing.

Known as one of the "four famous inkstones" - the other three being Duan, Taohe and Chengni - the She inkstones are mostly produced in She County, Anhui Province, and have been historically categorized by the various mines from which the stones were obtained. The stone is black with fine gold-like markings. She inkstones were first used during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).

Cheng says she learned to carve inkstones in 1985 in order to make a living. Many others in her hometown in She County also depend on inkstones to put food on the table. Some sell the raw stones needed to create inkstones while others carve the stones.

For serious calligraphers and painters, the quality of the inkstone is just as important as the quality of the ink as the inkstone can affect the ink's texture.

Paper, ink, brushes and inkstones - otherwise known as the "four treasures of study" - are the primary tools used in Chinese calligraphy and painting.

Although their practical functions have diminished amid technological developments, their artistic and cultural value continues to attract artists and collectors, the 49-year-old Cheng says.

"When I get a new perfectly raw stone I don't feel like eating or sleeping," she says, gently touching an inkstone engraved with a delicate, twisting dragon. "The only thing on my mind is how to carve it to show its beauty."

However, Cheng says she had to give up carving in 2004 because of a severe cough. But she was determined to continue working with the stones and moved to Beijing to open a booth at the Panjiayuan antiques market, where she sells inkstones made in her hometown.

The price of the raw stone has increased significantly over the years due to shrinking reserves. Higher prices have stimulated mine exploration, which has led to even greater consumption, she says.

Cheng says she gave up her plan to buy an apartment in Beijing three years ago and poured all of her money into purchasing high-end raw stones.

"The business was initially a way of feeding the family, but now it is more like a form of spiritual support for me," Cheng says.

She lives with her husband and 12-year-old son in a two-bedroom apartment near Panjiayuan. Her housing costs of 2,600 yuan (US$408) a month are her largest expense. Cheng has adopted an austere lifestyle - no cosmetics, no fancy meals and no new dresses.

"I only care about (She) inkstones," she says. "I have no desire for luxuries at all, but I feel calm and safe while gazing at or touching the stones."

Cheng says she once refused to sell an expensive She inkstone to a young buyer and that she also persuaded a customer to give up one of three high-end inkstones so that someone else could have a chance to own it.

"Every inkstone is a masterpiece of nature and craftsmanship, so I'm always looking forward to buyers who really understand and cherish the stones," she says. "I just hope to match as many inkstones with sincere collectors as possible."

Veteran collector Chen Guoyuan says the "four treasures of study" have carried forward Chinese civilization, promoted Chinese art to the world and brought fame to numerous artists. "No artwork can match their significant role," says Chen, 72, who has a collection of more than 400 inkstones picked up over the past 26 years.

Inkstones were popular among royalty in ancient China.

State leaders of modern China have also shown a fondness for inkstones, too.

In 1978, Deng Xiaoping gave then Japanese Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda a Duan inkstone. Thirty years later, President Hu Jintao presented a Duan inkstone as a gift to Takeo Fukuda's son Yasuo Fukuda, during his visit to Japan.

Highly priced

Chen, a former Chinese Air Force officer, named his own home after a Duan inkstone produced in Zhaoqing, Guangdong Province. He said he first saw the stone in 1990 while attending an exhibition and searched for it for years afterward.

Chen finally tracked it down and bought it in 1994 for 50,000 yuan, which put him 20,000 yuan in debt. His monthly salary was 500 yuan at the time.

People thought he was crazy, but time has proven the stone's value. An auctioneer told Chen in 2009 that the value of the inkstone could hit 3 million yuan because of its rare composition and top-quality carving.

Many stones have indeed fetched high auction prices. The 2009 Xiling Autumn Auction in Hangzhou saw 95 inkstones auctioned for more than 14 million yuan.

Luo Bojian, chairman of the China Association of Collectors, says people can make money by collecting things provided they understand the market in whatever they collect.

In ancient times, collecting antiques or art was a pastime of the elite. It wasn't until 1978, when China launched the reform and opening-up policy, that a massive collection market involving participants of all walks of life began to take shape, Luo says.

Stamps, seals, currency, rare wood furniture and old photos are increasingly popular items to collect among Chinese.

Auction companies, antique bazaars, art stores and individual traders offer abundant opportunities to collectors. For the same reason, it's hard to assess the market's scale and trade volume, he says.

China's economic power has grown rapidly over the past three decades, with Chinese people spending more than ever. Favorable economic and social environments have elevated collecting and auctions, Luo adds.

Prices have also been pushed up by international and domestic buyers, as Chinese art and antiques have become more popular around the world, Poly International Auction Co Ltd Executive Director Zhao Xu says.

"Chinese antiques and art had been underestimated at auctions for quite a long time," Luo says. "Skyrocketing prices in recent years indicate the world market is reappraising the value of these items."

However, collectors need to be concerned about fake products, which have flooded the market in recent years. Numerous amateur collectors have suffered economic losses due to fakes. There are people who worry about investment risks and bubbles in the business.

"Buyers should pay more attention to acquiring knowledge and skills, and never assume that you are the lucky person who has found a high-value antique at an exceptionally low price," Luo says. "If it seems to good to be true, it probably is."

He also suggests that amateurs only trade in accordance with their financial situation. Modern art, coins and stamps are often good choices for people just starting, he says.


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