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Inksticks write an interesting page in China's history
(China Daily)
Updated: 2004-06-23 09:54

Ink has for many centuries held an enduring fascination for Chinese.

Emperor Qianlong of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) is depicted in an undated painting getting ready to write in his study. [file photo]

Admirers of traditional Chinese calligraphy and ink painting cannot help but know about the Chinese inkstick, one of the so-called "four treasures of the study," namely, writing brush, rice paper, inkstick, and inkstone.

But people may not be so familiar with the stories behind Chinese ink and the inkstick.

Many may think that ink was nothing more than a medium used by the ancient Chinese for writing, painting and calligraphic art, produced by grinding an inkstick on an inkstone with a circular motion while adding a small amount of water.

The Chinese inkstick is a unique medium that holds liquid ink in solid form used in combination with an inkstone to produce the pure black ink used in traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy. Without this unique material, it might be impossible to create the bewitching artistic concepts and effects achieved in these traditional Chinese arts.

From ancient times on down through history, generations of Chinese painters have developed complex monochromatic techniques in writing and painting with Chinese ink.

Invention of paper

A fine example of Hui Mo, of the Hui inkstick. Often bearing a poem, such inksticks, produced in Huizhou in East China's Anhui Province, has become the epitome of Chinese inkstick art.
Writing Chinese characters or ideographs with a brush and ink became a fine art after paper was invented in China around 200 AD.

Chinese have always placed a high value on written texts and the aesthetic aspects of the ideographs of their written language.

Ink painting flourished during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and developed a special association with the Chan Sect of Buddhism, more widely known in the West by its Japanese name, Zen Buddhism, which emphasizes simplicity, spontaneity and self-expression.

The aim of ink painting was also influenced by Taoist beliefs, which emphasize spontaneity and harmony with nature. Ink painting is to capture, using a minimum of rapid, spontaneous brush strokes and ink washes, the essence of the subject being depicted, including elements of nature such as birds and flowers.

Ink paintings are asymmetrical and contain a large portion of empty space, which has a positive connotation in Chinese art and philosophy. As a result, it expresses the "emptiness" out of which all things are created.

Even today, the laborious and complex processes involved in inkstick production are still kept secret by Chinese craftsmen.

But it is known that the chief ingredients of high quality ink are lampblack and glue.

The finest lampblack is supposed to come from the burning of vegetable oils.

In ancient times the best lampblack, or soot, was made by burning specially selected pine trees in an ink furnace that had inverted pottery jars over the fire.

These jars trapped the soot which was then removed with feather brushes.

The soot was then mixed with glue, which was made from horn or animal hide.

According to ancient books about inkstick making, the glue made from the horns of young deer was of the highest quality because of its purity.

Evidence of the earliest use of ancient Chinese ink was reportedly found in an excavated tomb in Lintong, in Northwest China's Shaanxi Province, believed to date back to the prehistoric Yangshao Culture period from 7,000 to 6,000 years ago.

In the tomb, Chinese archaeologists found a set of ink painting tools including an inkstone, a stone handle believed to help grind the inkstick, and remnants of inksticks.

Historical records also indicate that Chinese ink was also used by ancient sorcerers to predict the future.

When making ritual predictions in royal courts or at public gatherings, a sorcerer would incise and then ink in characters on tortoise shells, and then burn them in a fire. He would then study carefully the shapes and lines of the cracked shell, to determine ominous or auspicious signs related to the incised messages or questions.

The best examples are the so-called oracle bones from Yinxu, or Yin Ruins of the late Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC) in today's Anyang, in Central China's Henan Province.

Ink was found on the surface of these oracle bones, which were excavated over 100 years ago and date back about 3,000 years.

The researchers believe that the ancient Chinese characters were incised on either turtle shells (jia) or on the shoulder blades of ox (gu) with a mixture of ink and cinnabar to make sure they could be read clearly.

There are also ancient descriptions of the use of Chinese ink to write humiliating characters on the faces of criminals as a form of punishment in the ancient Shang Shu, or "Book of Shang," and of the ink used in ancient ink marker of Chinese carpenters in the Li Ji, or "Book of Rites."

The Shang Shu is also known as the Shu Jing, or "The Book of History," which is believed to be one of the six classics that Confucius compiled and commented on.

The Li Ji, or "Book of Rites," or "Collection of Treatises on the Rules of Propriety and Ceremonial Usages," is one of the four extant collections of writing on ritual matters of the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC).

Tao Zongyi (1329?-1421), a poet and calligrapher of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), once said that, in the Shang Dynasty, with the maturity of ancient Chinese characters and the widespread availability of natural graphites, the use of ink became very popular.

The inkstick was "first ground against a stone inkslab, or a stone bowl, or on a piece of tile made of baked clay, and the resultant ink was then used to write Chinese characters on bamboo strips with a writing brush," Tao wrote in his "Recollections of Days at a Southern Village" (Nancun Cuogen Lu).

Before the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), there was little use of inksticks and man-made ink. With technical improvements, inksticks were shaped by hand and later with moulds.

In the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220), most inksticks were produced in North and Northwest China, in today's Shaanxi, Shanxi and Hebei provinces.

The inksticks produced in Qianyan County, in today's Shaanxi Province, at the foot of the Zhongnan Mountains where pine trees were plentiful, was well-known in China during the Eastern Han Dynasty.

In the Sui (AD 581-618) and Tang (AS 618-907) dynasties, inkstick production began to boom, as the court offered the industry preferential policies.

In the Tang Dynasty, the inkstick makers could produce ink of different colours, such as red and yellow.

For example, yellow ink was widely used, along with the writing brush, in the copy-editing of books and picture albums, according to the "Annals of the Tang Dynasty" (Tang Shu).

In the Tang Dynasty, inkstick moulds were widely used, improving their shape.

As a result, both the production proficiency and the quality of the inksticks were greatly improved. The inksticks of that time were of superior hardness and durability.

The making of inksticks involves a number of steps.

One of them is making the moulds that are used to shape the inksticks, which were produced in a variety of rectangular, square, round, oval, or irregular shapes.

The images impressed on the moulded inksticks also required a high degree of artistry.

Although some newly made inksticks were sold without adornment, most inksticks were coated with lacquer or gold powder before they were sent to market.

Beginning in the late Tang Dynasty, many families working in the inkstick industry moved from North China to East China's Jiangsu, Jiangxi and Anhui provinces because of the continuous wars in the north, bringing the inkstick-making technology to the south.

The demand for ink soared in the Song Dynasty when the development of the so-called kejuzhi or official examination system of feudal China and the traditional Chinese calligraphic and painting arts reached their heights.

This, in turn, greatly stimulated the development of the inkstick industry.

In the Song Dynasty, the craft of inkstick making achieved an unprecedented level. During that time, the scented inkstick was created. Some makers even put some medicine into the ingredients of the inkstick. Even today, Hui Inksticks are used by physicians of traditional Chinese medicine.

Inksticks made of crude oil soot also became popular in the early Song Dynasty as the excessive logging of old pine trees almost led to the extinction of the pine tree in many parts of the nation, historical records indicate.

From craft to art

From the Song Dynasty on, many Chinese literati showed an increasing interest in collecting quality inksticks, which resulted in inksticks becoming a form of art instead of just a consumer product.

By the mid-Song Dynasty, delicately made and carefully packaged sets of inkstick were being made to cater to the tastes of inkstick connoisseurs.

For inkstick sets, craftsmen developed series of inkstick surface decorations featuring novel patterns, figures, and pictures.

They also designed decorative patterns of great variety for the surface of the lacquered wooden cases used to store the expensive inksticks.

In the collection of the Palace Museum today, visitors can view some of these old sets of encased quality inksticks.

On the surface of a set of coloured inksticks dedicated to Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) Emperor Qianlong, 10 pictures are vividly engraved, each accompanied by a poem by the emperor about one of the top 10 scenic spots of West Lake in picturesque Hangzhou, in East China's Zhejiang Province.

The pictures are painted with natural mineral colours in bright red, yellow, green, blue, brown and white and accurately recreate the original look of West Lake well over 200 years ago.

New technical breakthroughs were made in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties as craftsmanship was improved as well as the ingredients, and the quality of the inkstick continued to advance.

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