Main Contents

#192 :: Chinese Ink Stone

August 20, 2004

Lampblack and glue, pressed into hard sticks, must be ground against a smooth stone with water to make ink. I think this page was more eloquent than I would ever hope to on the subject:

The inkstone, which was used to grind the ink, was considered the very soul of a scholars library. These stones were selected with the greatest of care and were often decorated with elaborate symbols or literary phrases thought to encourage the scholars production of higher sentiments. While there are many exceptions, most inkstones are rectangular or rounded. Most are in fact made of stone but examples of pottery also exist. The definitive work on this subject is probably Mi Fus Yen shih or Account of Inkstones. This work gives the proper name for all portions of the Inkstone and sets out the various characteristics of Inkstones and their use. Later but also fascinating works on Inkstones include the Yen lin or Forest of Inkstones by Yu Huai, which was written in the 1600s. This was followed by Pao yen tang yen pien or Discussion of Inkstones from the Hall of Treasured Inkstones by Ho Chuan-yao and Tuan his yen shih or Account of Tuan His Stones by Wu Lan-hsui, both of which were published in the 1830s.

Inkstones are an acquired taste like several other facets of Chinese culture. They are generally black or dark in color and do not draw the attention of the eye. Their beauty oftentimes is not so much in how they look but in how they work together with the ink and the paper and brush to achieve a particular color or texture. However, for those fortunate enough to have learned to master the brush, ink, inkstone and paper, the four precious things of the library are a passion. Holding an antique inkstone, it is hard not to feel the power that emanated from the previous painter or scholar who possessed this stone. For this reason, inkstones are avidly collected and treasured by Chinese and some foreigners. Prices vary greatly and are often based on stories as to prior owners, which are difficult if not impossible to verify.

I bought this for a few yuan on our honeymoon in Beijing more than 10 years ago. I experimented with a set of traditional rabbit’s fur brushes for a little while, then stored it until recently. Its grinding surface is marred where some careless shopkeeper stuck an adhesive price tag to it long before it came to my possession, but it in no way detracts from the turbulent whorls of water, the watchful apsect of the little turtle at the edge of the “pond.” I pull it out and heft it in my hand every now and then, for inspiration.

Filed under: Tool | Comments (2)


  1. SB August 23, 2004 @ 10:18 am

    this is so beautiful

  2. mack reed August 23, 2004 @ 8:29 am

    Choosing it out of dozens of equally gorgeous inkstones was an excrutiating pleasure. There were stones shaped like trees, mountains, palaces, oxcarts – it was a pretty heady experience. I’ll blog the ink and brushes a little further down the road.