A Fra­grant Ink of Honour

In 1865, Xie Song­dai started his Yidege Ink busi­ness in Bei­jing. Af­ter 150 years, Yidege’s crafts­man­ship was put on the list of China Intangible Cul­tural Her­itage.

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Liu Xian­shu Edited by Roger Bradshaw Pho­tos by Li Xiaoyin

In 1865, Xie Song­dai started his Yidege Ink busi­ness in Bei­jing. Af­ter 150 years, Yidege’s crafts­man­ship was put on the list of China’s Intangible Cul­tural Her­itage.

If you'd like to get a good un­der­stand­ing of just how real Chi­nese ink is pro­duced, you can hardly do bet­ter than vis­it­ing the Yidege plant in Bei­jing, where you can smell the fra­grance of ink and feel like you're in an ink shop from 150 years ago. Al­though it's been that long since Yidege was founded, it still makes its ink with crafts­man­ship for over four gen­er­a­tions. This ink is made from glue ex­tracted from bones boiled in two elec­tric caul­drons.

The warm inky paste is mixed in 12 buck­ets, then rolled out in two rolling ma­chines, af­ter which the black shiny ink is poured into 16 large sinks for sed­i­men­ta­tion. Af­ter 48 hours, the ink is bot­tled and ready to use.

The busi­ness got its name from a scholar named Xie Song­dai, from An­hui Prov­ince, who lived in the Tongzhi reign (1862–1875) of the Qing Dy­nasty (1644– 1911). When Xie trav­elled to Bei­jing for the im­pe­rial ex­am­i­na­tions, he found that the process of grind­ing ink on an ink stone— which had been used since an­cient times to write with a brush—would take a great deal of time.

He was de­ter­mined to de­velop a sub­sti­tute for the fa­mous slab, and fi­nally man­aged to come up with ink in a liq­uid form for the first time. Then, in 1865, he started his ink pro­duc­tion and sales busi­ness on Li­ulichang (a pop­u­lar cul­tural prod­ucts street) in Bei­jing, and named it “Yidege” ( Yide Shop), tak­ing the yi from the Chi­nese for “one” and de, mean­ing “at­tain­ment.” So, the Chi­nese had ac­cess to ex­cel­lent ink.

The Glue

Yidege Ink is in Duyi Vil­lage, near Changyang Town, in Bei­jing's Fang­shan District, in an un­der­ground garage, where the site is filled with a year-round ink fra­grance.

Ev­ery work­day, you can find Yin Zhiqiang, a third- gen­er­a­tion mem­ber of the Yidege crafts­mens' fam­ily, here, lead­ing his team in mak­ing the ink us­ing an an­tique recipe. Yin ex­plains that the black ink ac­tu­ally has five shades— pitch­black, thick black, heavy black, light black and clear black— while other ink pro­duced with other glue, no mat­ter how smooth the writ­ing, will fade over time. The higher qual­ity the ink, the more ef­fort the glue boil­ing re­quires.

On the up­per floor of the Yidege Ink fac­tory are two elec­tric cal­drons for glue boil­ing. Right be­fore 4 p.m., in spite of the fact that prepara­tory ink mak­ing starts in the early morn­ing, the work­ers are just now mix­ing the ma­te­ri­als.

While the bone glue can at­tach it­self to pa­per with­out be­ing soaked into it, the boil­ing process is ex­tremely de­mand­ing, a process Yin de­scribes as be­ing like mak­ing pork skin jelly, where the bone glue is the “jelly” of the ink. If the glue is thick, the ink tends to so­lid­ify like real pork skin jelly and if the glue is thin, the ink will soak into the pa­per.

As Yin puts it, “Tim­ing is the most im­por­tant and dif­fi­cult as­pect of glue boil­ing and masters pass this se­cret on to ap­pren­tices face- to- face, and there are no tech­ni­cal pa­ram­e­ters you can re­fer to. It's im­pos­si­ble to master these skills by sim­ply stand­ing in front of the cal­drons and watch­ing.”

The 24-year-old Yin Zhiqiang be­gan work in the ink fac­tory in 1981 and, a year later, be­came the work­shop's di­rec­tor. To try to man­age things bet­ter, he worked hard to learn ink mak­ing tech­niques. He never ex­pected that he would end up in this trade for the next 30 years. But, with

in­struc­tions from his masters and his own ef­fort, he ac­quired a keen sense of tim­ing.

What this means is that Yin can tell how long the glue has boiled by scoop­ing some up with a la­dle and ex­am­in­ing it. “If the glue at­tached to the la­dle sur­face is as thin as a piece of pa­per, it's ready. If the layer of glue is thicker than a piece of pa­per, we need to add some wa­ter. If there's no glue stick­ing to the la­dle, it's too thin. In this case, noth­ing can be done.”

The 200 kilo­grams of bone glue is ready af­ter seven or eight hours of boil­ing in the cal­dron at a tem­per­a­ture of 200 de­grees Cel­sius, but, if wait­ing un­til this point to cut the power, the glue gets over­done, be­cause it needs to be left for a while with caul­dron heat.

The power has to be cut be­fore the glue is ready, to al­low the resid­ual heat to fin­ish the job. The tim­ing of the power cut de­pends on ex­pe­ri­ence. The am­bi­ent tem­per­a­ture also af­fects the boil­ing. No mat­ter what, Yin can al­ways iden­tify the ex­act mo­ment by ob­serv­ing the glue's con­di­tion.

Crys­tal sugar is also added, so that the ink can gleam while used in writ­ing. Only the most ex­pe­ri­enced op­er­a­tors can know the tim­ing and ap­pro­pri­ate amount of ad­di­tives.

Ink Press­ing

Glue boil­ing starts in the af­ter­noon and is fin­ished around mid­night, at which time Yin no­ti­fies his col­leagues by hit­ting the caul­dron pipe with a shovel. On hear­ing this, the work­ers wait­ing down­stairs open the valve and the hot glue in a bright red colour flows through the pipes to 12 buck­ets, each nearly one me­tre in di­am­e­ter. Af­ter be­ing boiled for long, the glue turns into a thick, sticky paste.

Too much glue leads to writ­ing that's not smooth, and too lit­tle glue makes the ink at­taches to the pa­per. The car­bon black that Yidege ac­quired is shiny black, so that the ink paste has the same shiny colour when mixed with the glue.

One cu­ri­ous fea­ture of tra­di­tional Chi­nese ink is the ad­di­tion of rare Chi­nese medicines, such as bor­neol (cam­phor) and musk, which goes back to the Han Dy­nasty (206 BC–AD 220) and which im­parts a re­fresh­ing fra­grance. It's also used as an an­ti­sep­tic.

Preser­va­tives are also added to ex­tend its shelf life and pre­vent it from go­ing bad or pro­duc­ing a bad odour. In­gre­di­ents of Yidege's ink are a se­cret, so Yin de­clined to give any fur­ther de­tail.

Af­ter the other in­gre­di­ents are added, the ink paste shim­mers like Bei­jing's fried bean sauce. The ink paste is stirred with iron shov­els and car­ried to a three-roller ma­chine, which spits out lay­ers of black ink like smooth silk and flows into buck­ets.

This is the press­ing phase, as its name im­plies. The rollers move at dif­fer­ent speeds, with the first mov­ing slowly to pull the ink paste into the ma­chine, the sec­ond not mov­ing by it­self, and the third moves the fastest to bring out the paste.

This is also sim­i­lar to the tra­di­tional wire drawing process for Chi­nese fil­i­gree, which Yin in­tro­duced to the ink press­ing us­ing a sim­i­lar loose-to-tight man­ner. The space be­tween the rollers al­lows the ink paste to be pressed grad­u­ally. For this, the ma­chine's tight­ness is a factor.

There's an in­ter­est­ing story be­hind this. A few years af­ter Yin de­cided to re­tire, the Yidege ink be­gan pro­duc­ing a strange odour, and ev­ery­one was won­der­ing about the source of the prob­lem, but no one knew why. The smell got so bad that it af­fected peo­ple's health and dam­aged Yidege's name, so Yin was asked to take a closer look. He read­ily agreed.

Walk­ing around in the fac­tory, he soon lo­cated the source of the prob­lem: ink press­ing. It turned out that while the ink paste was be­ing pressed by the three rollers, the glue would some­times stick on the rollers, in which case the work­ers would sep­a­rate them and spread the glue with a shovel. Af­ter this, they would put the shovel into a bucket.

What Yin dis­cov­ered was that there was wa­ter left in the bucket that was used for clean­ing it­self, which didn't dry out, nor was it cleaned with hot wa­ter. The ink was pol­luted. Yin told the work­ers never to clean the bucket with or­di­nary wa­ter again and to al­ways clean the shovel. No sooner had this pol­lu­tion is­sue been solved that the smelly ink soon dis­ap­peared.

Clean cold wa­ter is grad­u­ally poured into the three-roller ma­chine to cool the rollers and af­ter three rounds of press­ing, which lasts six hours, the ink paste is no longer as sticky as be­fore, but is still in paste form. Yin says that if the black ink glim­mers un­der the light and re­flects a per­son's face like a mir­ror, it's fine. Af­ter about three rounds of rolling, the ink paste is black and glossy.

Af­ter press­ing, al­though the ink is thin­ner and has a finer tex­ture, it still isn't the ink in liq­uid form that we're fa­mil­iar with. To get the real liq­uid ink, wa­ter has to be added with the mix­ture stirred in a tank.

Af­ter that, the ink goes into an­other tank for 48 hours of sed­i­men­ta­tion, where any residue in the ink sinks to the bot­tom, and the ink in the up­per layer can be drawn off to an­other nearby shop through the pipes. There are chem­i­cal tests for qual­ity con­trol pur­poses, af­ter which the ink can be con­veyed to the bot­tling line for pack­ag­ing.

Ink Recipe

Dur­ing this en­tire process—from raw ma­te­rial pro­cure­ment to pro­duc­tion to writ­ing—tests are con­ducted at ev­ery stage. En­ter He Ping, Yidege Ink's qual­ity con­trol ex­pert. His duty is to en­sure that the ink is of the finest qual­ity, pol­lu­tion- and odour-free, and un­harm­ful to peo­ple's health.

In ex­plain­ing his po­si­tion, He Ping says, “All of Yidege prod­ucts are of the same high qual­ity, with, for ex­am­ple, one prod­uct aimed at stu­dents so they can prac­tise to fill that mar­ket gap and re­spond to con­sumer de­mand. Ac­tu­ally we lose money on that prod­uct, but its qual­ity is as good as any other in its colour, smooth­ness and quick dry­ing. All our cus­tomers trust the qual­ity of our goods.”

But He Ping's work doesn't stop there. His other task is to re­search ink in­gre­di­ents. Just be­fore this past New Year's Day, Yidege held an ink trial fo­rum in Li­ulichang, where eight cal­lig­ra­phers and artists were asked to try out a new Yidege ink called shang­pin yun­touyan (“su­pe­rior colour­ful cloud glory”), that Yin and He Ping de­vel­oped.

In fact, Yun­touyan was the name of the orig­i­nal first- class ink that Xie Song­dai came up with. It's said that the ink had the splen­dour of pur­ple jade, and that its black marks were ethe­real. Nat­u­rally, the crafts­man­ship was su­pe­rior and com­plex, and dis­ap­peared with Xie when he died.

In 2003, Yidege's tech­ni­cians dis­cov­ered a book, Yun­touyan ji (“Yun­touyan notes”) writ­ten by scholar Bao Shuwei of the Qing Dy­nasty, and based on in­for­ma­tion gleaned from the book, and us­ing an old ink stone, He Ping con­ducted ex­per­i­ments and un­cov­ered the recipe of the renowned ink. In early 2016, Yidege planned to make a high­end prod­uct based on this yun­touyan.

Since He Ping was the only mem­ber of that team of ex­perts work­ing on the yun­touyan in the past who had not re­tired, he was a nat­u­ral can­di­date for the task, while Yin was re­spon­si­ble for mak­ing the ink based on He Ping's mix­ture.

In less than a year, He Ping and Yin did more than 100 ex­per­i­ments and suc­ceeded in devel­op­ing the shang­pin yun­touyan. It was a mar­vel­lous ink for the fo­rum and all the par­tic­i­pants were amazed at its fea­tures.

The ink is thin and clear, with an even, shiny black colour and pro­vides for smooth writ­ing. The strokes from the ink are as glo­ri­ous as pur­ple jade. A cal­lig­ra­pher can pro­duce var­i­ous shades of black by turn­ing or over­lap­ping the brush.

Artists can use the ink to de­pict var­i­ous scenes in na­ture, such as a gur­gling spring, drift­ing clouds, or fall­ing snow and rain. This su­pe­rior qual­ity and ar­chaic pack­ag­ing have won the favour of many cal­lig­ra­phers and artists.

Yidege Ink is not rest­ing on its lau­rels, in­stead push­ing ahead with its re­search and de­vel­op­ment and its latest prod­uct, la­beled Chanmo (“Bud­dhist ink”) which will soon be­gin pro­duc­tion.

Through re­peated ex­per­i­ments, He Ping has man­aged to re­place the old bone glue with other chem­i­cals so that an­i­mal bones will no longer be re­quired, re­liev­ing cus­tomers of any guilty feel­ings they may have in this re­gard. In the work­shop, Yin and his col­leagues have in­stalled new pro­duc­tion equip­ment for Chanmo and will soon be mak­ing the ink at a timely pace.

In both cal­lig­ra­phy and paint­ing, Yidege ink ren­ders an ex­cel­lent ef­fect and when ap­plied with­out any wa­ter to a work of art, the work doesn't ap­pear rigid. Thick ink can add verve to a work of art, while light ink doesn't ap­pear pale at all with Yidege ink. The Chi­nese can doc­u­ment their life, his­tory, sen­ti­ments and sto­ries as trea­sures for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

Ar­ti­sans are en­cour­aged to pre­serve this ink crafts­man­ship. In 2016, Yidege held an ap­pren­tice ac­cep­tance cer­e­mony that fol­lowed tra­di­tional rit­u­als, where sev­eral young peo­ple were recog­nised as ap­pren­tices to Yin, He Ping and Zhang Yonglin.

They now con­sti­tute a fourth­gen­er­a­tion of ink crafts­men. Yin says that he will pass on ev­ery­thing he knows about the man­u­fac­tur­ing ink with­out any reser­va­tions, and that he hopes this knowl­edge can be passed onto the next gen­er­a­tion.

Back at the Yidege work­shop, the ink is still be­ing made in ac­cor­dance with stan­dard pro­ce­dures: boil­ing the glue, mix­ing, press­ing the ink and then sed­i­men­ta­tion.

With a truly au­then­tic recipe, the best raw ma­te­ri­als, clean ma­chines, stan­dard op­er­at­ing pro­ce­dures, and thor­ough day-to- day test­ing, Yin, He Ping and oth­ers are lead­ing their team mem­bers in pro­duc­ing the finest, time­honoured ink with a rare fra­grance.

Adding wa­ter to stir the ink paste

Adding fra­grant ad­di­tives with preser­va­tives

Af­ter press­ing, ink paste flows into a bucket of var­i­ous glues

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