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January 21, 2018

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A stone more precious than gems

MI Fu (1051-1107), one of the greatest calligraphers China has ever brought forth, was once summoned by Emperor Huizong of the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1297) to demonstrate his skill in his private study in the imperial court.

When he arrived, the emperor allowed the calligrapher to use a slab of stone on his desk to grind ink. Soon, Mi finished his writing and the emperor was so impressed by his sublime lettering that he could hardly take his eyes off the masterpiece.

Meanwhile, the calligrapher had gazed at the slab of stone on the emperor’s desk for a long time.

Suddenly, Mi said, “Your Majesty, I think I have defiled the stone after I ground ink on it, so it’s no longer appropriate to leave it on your desk anymore. Why don’t you just give it to me?”

Looking at the craving expression on the calligrapher’s face, the emperor laughed and said, “OK, it’s yours now.”

“Really?” Mi was so excited that he immediately snatched it off the desk and held it tightly in his arms, splashing the black ink all over his silk robe.

Then, Mi hastily said goodbye to the emperor and trotted out of his study like a child who had just got a new toy that he had long dreamed of.

The stone Mi was so obsessed with is called inkstone or yantai in Chinese.

Most inkstones are of the size of an adult’s palm or a large notebook with a thickness of 2-5 centimeters. Charcoal grey or dark brown and usually in an oblong shape, the stone slabs invariably have a dent on one end of it.

In one word, they don’t look like anything so special.

However, in Chinese culture, inkstones have been valued by artists and scholars as more precious than gemstones. Also, they have long been deemed as an indispensable part and one of the Four Treasures of traditional Chinese study, with the other three being Xuan paper or rice paper, the brush pen and the inkstick.

So, no wonder inkstone has been widely regarded as a unique icon of Chinese culture.

As a mortar or grinding tool for producing handmade ink, yan, an abbreviation for yantai, can be dated back to 6,000 to 7,000 years ago.

Mi once wrote a thesis on inkstone, called “Yanshi,” or “Account of Inkstones,” which explores the history and great varieties of the stoneware.

An inkstone usually has at least one polished flat side, with a border, a plain and a dented well. The plain surface is used for grinding ink while the well for ink storage.

To produce ink, one first drops some water on the plain surface and then rubs an inkstick on it to produce tiny soot particles in the water. The rubbing continues until the water becomes dark enough for writing or painting.

Fine art

Chinese inksticks’ key ingredients are lampblack and glue. Fine lampblack comes from the burning of vegetable oils or from burning specially selected pine wood, while the glue could be made from horn or animal hides.

As a result, the Chinese handmade ink is quite different from the chemical ink widely used in the West. The Chinese ink can stand the test of time longer and Chinese calligraphy and paintings created with such ink usually can keep their freshness even after centuries of display.

Later, inkstone carvers and artists began to decorate the stone slab with elaborate symbols or literary phrases, turning a piece of plain-looking stone into fine art. So, some carvers or artists would leave their signatures or seals on their favorite creations.

Inkstones are so called because most of them are made of stone, though there are also bronze, pottery or even silver and with jade ink rubbing tools.

Out of the great variety of stones in the world, only three are particularly favored by both Chinese artisans and scholars as the best materials for making inkstones.

They are Duan stone from southern China’s Guangdong Province, She inkstone slate from east China’s Anhui and Jiangxi provinces and Taohe stone from Gansu Province in the northwest.

Purplish in color, Duan stone is a kind of volcanic tuff which is extremely smooth after polishing. Inkstone made in Duanxi Lake area in Guangdong is very effective in ink rubbing. People also like its unique markings caused by imbedded rock materials. So, Duan inkstone is widely regarded the very best of all inkstones.

She inkstone was first produced during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). It is known for its elegant patterns and suitability for relief carving. It is also liked for its low water absorbency, so the ink won’t dry up quickly on the stone.

Taohe inkstone is made from the sedimentary rock found at the bottom of the Taohe River in Gansu Province. The greenish stone usually has distinctive stripes and ripple-like patterns. The hardness of Taohe inkstone is between Duan and She inkstones, so it’s considered as having combined the merits of the latter two.

The above-mentioned three inkstones together with Chengni inkstone are always hailed as the Top Four Inkstones in China. But Chengni inkstone is not made of stone. It’s actually a ceramic mortar. There are a half dozen or more well-known producers of Chengni inkstones around the country. Chengni inkstones tend to have mixed colors and feature artificial shapes.

Today, though mass-produced bottle ink is widely available which contains similar ingredients as the hand-ground ink, most artists and calligraphers in China still love to make their own ink by rubbing inkstick on an inkstone. They often claim that the home-made ink works better than bottle ink purchased in market.

Despite the fact that inkstone is no longer a sine quo non in everyone’s study in China today, the prices of quality inkstones keep growing rapidly. This is partly because of the constant decrease in the amount of desired stones and partly because rare old inkstones have become a hot object among collectors.

The price depends not only on the quality or the craftsmanship of an inkstone, but also on stories of its prior owners.

For instance, in 2017, an inkstone reportedly once owned by Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), was auctioned off in Hangzhou, capital of east China’s Zhejiang Province, for 8.855 million yuan (US$1.4 million).

In 2010, another inkstone made of Chengni and was said to be once sitting on the desk in the private study of the same emperor was sold at an auction in Beijing for 14 million yuan.

So, a piece of ordinary-looking stone could be more expensive than jade, ruby or other gemstones in China, if it is an inkstone.

In 2008, the craftsmanship of making inkstone was inscribed on the country’s second list of national intangible cultural heritages.


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