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.
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.
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.
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.
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