The Ex­quis­ite, Famed Yix­ian Ink­stone

Beijing (English) - - CULTURAL HERITAGE - Trans­lated by Wang Xiao­hua Edited by Justin Davis

The ink­stone is a unique tool used by an­cient Chi­nese peo­ple to grind ink­sticks for writ­ing. When grind­ing was fin­ished, brushes were dipped in ink and used to write or draw. Ink­stones are not only a tool for the grind­ing and con­tain­ment of ink but also con­vey the imag­i­na­tive power and feel­ings of the literati.

An­cient Yishui ink­stones orig­i­nated in Yizhou (to­day’s Yix­ian County, He­bei Prov­ince) and are known as the “fore­fa­ther of all ink­stones.” Ac­cord­ing to the An­nals of Yizhou: “The tex­ture of Yishui ink­stones is com­pa­ra­ble to that of Duan and Xi ink­stones.” It also states “These stones have dif­fer­ent colours such as pur­ple, green and white. As they are char­ac­terised by their fine tex­ture and are hard enough, they are good ma­te­ri­als for mak­ing ink­stones.” Yix­ian County at­tracted countless men of let­ters and re­fined schol­ars.

Pur­ple, Dark Green Jade Stones

Ac­cord­ing to his­tor­i­cal records, ink­stones from Duanzhou, Shezhou and Lin­tao are called the “Three Fa­mous Ink­stones.” At the end of the Qing Dy­nasty, Chengni ink­stones from Jiangzhou, Shanxi were in­cluded in the group. They be­came known as the “Four Fa­mous Ink­stones of China.” Both the Duan and She ink­stones orig­i­nated from the an­cient ink­stones of Yix­ian County.

The ear­li­est his­tor­i­cal records of an­cient Yishui ink­stones are found in the Moshi (“his­tory of ink pro­duc­tion”), which men­tions Zu Min, a fa­mous inkmak­ing ar­ti­san in the Tang Dy­nasty. It states: “Zu Min was from Yizhou. He took a gov­ern­ment po­si­tion and was in charge of ink pro­duc­tion. He made ink with deer­horn glue. This tech­nique was known far and wide.” Xi Chao learnt the ink pro­duc­tion tech­nique from Zu Min.

Dur­ing the Five Dy­nas­ties (AD 907– 960) pe­riod, Xi Ting­gui was ap­pointed by the em­peror of the South­ern Tang Dy­nasty (AD 937–976) to serve as an of­fi­cial in charge of ink mak­ing as a re­sult of his pre­em­i­nence in this area. Xi Ting­gui was also granted the fam­ily name Li, which was the same as the em­peror. Xi Chao and his son spread ink and ink­stone mak­ing tech­niques to Shezhou (also known as Huizhou). He was the fore­fa­ther of the Hui ink­stick and She ink­stone. Later, ink­stone mak­ing tech­niques orig­i­nat­ing from Yizhou spread to Zhao­qing, Guang­dong Prov­ince. The Duan ink­stone then emerged. Nev­er­the­less, Yishui ink­stones did not lose pop­u­lar­ity and be­come one of the “Four Trea­sures of the Study” well-known in North China. For this rea­son, Duan ink­stones in the south and Yishui ink­stones in the north re­ceived wide ac­claim and were writ­ten into the an­nals of his­tory by later gen­er­a­tions.

As time went by, the tech­niques for mak­ing Yishui ink­stones were car­ried for­ward, de­vel­oped and grad­u­ally ma­tured. Yishui ink­stones won the favour of the im­pe­rial fam­ily dur­ing the Song Dy­nasty (AD 960–1279). They were con­sid­ered the best of all the fa­mous ink­stones for palace tributes. Yishui ink­stones in this pe­riod were no longer a writ­ing tools. They be­came ex­quis­ite works of art fea­tur­ing the com­bi­na­tion of carv­ing and paint­ing and were col­lected by men of let­ters.

Song Dy­nasty of­fi­cial Mi Fu once com­mented: “The Yishui ink­stone is hard and beau­ti­ful. If one breathes upon it, vapour will arise. If it con­tains wa­ter, the wa­ter will never dry up. Grind­ing ink with the ink­stone and put­ting it to pa­per, one will find the ink marks are at­trac­tively bright-coloured. Even if sev­eral decades have passed, it is still as bright as ever.”

The fine qual­ity of Yishui ink­stones lies in the fine stone ma­te­ri­als that are used. Tra­di­tional Yishui ink­stone ma­te­ri­als mostly in­cluded two cat­e­gories, namely, pur­ple jade stone and dark green jade stone. Pur­ple-jade stone was mainly found in Huan­g­long Hillock, Taiyun Vil­lage of Weidu Township and its sur­round­ing area. Pur­ple jade stone must be chis­elled out from deep caves. There­fore, it was also named “big cave stone.” Pur­ple jade stone has a warm and hu­mid tex­ture. It is use­ful for grind­ing ink very quickly. The re­sult­ing ink is fine and smooth, fea­tur­ing prim­i­tive sim­plic­ity in colour and lus­tre. Cou­pled with the su­perb work­man­ship of ar­ti­sans, Yishui ink­stones have been fa­mous through­out the cen­turies.

Yishui ink stones are nat­u­rally en­dowed with el­e­gant tex­ture and bizarre lines. The An­nals of Yizhou, which were com­piled dur­ing the Qing Dy­nasty, in­di­cates that “the ma­te­rial of the Yishui ink­stone is in dif­fer­ent colours, such as pur­ple, green, white and brown. It is fine and hard in tex­ture, for which it is the best ma­te­rial for mak­ing ink­stones.” Gen­er­ally, pur­ple jade stone is deep pur­ple. Dif­fer­ent coloured spots such as white and yel­low are of­ten at the tops of the stones. These spots are called stone eyes. Well-or­dered spots are called “eyes in eyes” and or “ac­tive eyes.” The spots at the edges of stone eyes, which are dim and ir­reg­u­lar in shape, are called “stone ha­los.” The stone eyes and stone ha­los are of­ten skil­fully used to make var­i­ous kinds of ink­stones of su­pe­rior qual­ity. Per­fect in smooth­ness, these ink­stones are easy to han­dle and use.

Be­com­ing Widely Pop­u­lar

Af­ter the found­ing of the Yuan Dy­nasty, Kublai Khan, Em­peror Shizu (reign: 1260– 1295) greatly val­ued Yishui ink­stones. As a re­sult, they de­vel­oped rapidly. At the Bei­jing An­cient Ink­stone Stu­dio, there is an ex­quis­ite Yishui ink­stone. It fea­tures a carv­ing of a child grind­ing ink un­der a lantern. Yishui ink­stone pro­duc­tion flour­ished dur­ing the Ming and Qing dy­nas­ties. The modelling and com­po­si­tion of the ink­stones be­came ma­ture, re­fined and dig­ni­fied. Three-di­men­sional carv­ing, deep carv­ing, re­lief and high re­lief, low re­lief, and line en­grav­ing tech­niques be­gan to be used. Work­man­ship was be­com­ing bet­ter and ap­proach­ing per­fec­tion day by day. Con­nois­seurs spoke highly of Yishui ink­stones dur­ing the Ming Dy­nasty (1368– 1644), stat­ing things like: “Yishui ink­stones boast a hard and smooth tex­ture, bright colour, dig­ni­fied shape and melo­di­ous sound. If carved, they can be col­lected as com­plete works of art. For this rea­son, they are the best of all ink­stones.”

Yishui ink­stone pro­duc­tion is a com­pli­cated process. Yishui ink­stones were very pop­u­lar dur­ing the Tang, Song, Yuan and Ming dy­nas­ties among men of let­ters. The exquisitely carved Yishui ink­stones were es­pe­cially well re­garded dur­ing the Qing Dy­nasty. At that time, Yishui ink­stones, long leaf to­bacco and Mopan Per­sim­mons (large per­sim­mons in

the shape of mill­stones) were con­sid­ered the “three trea­sures of Yizhou.” These items were given in tributes pre­sented to the Qing court. Yishui ink­stones flour­ished dur­ing the Qing Dy­nasty, which had much to do with the con­struc­tion of the Western Qing tombs.

Yix­ian County was a land of plenty. It was a well-en­dowed re­gion that at­tracted men of tal­ent. Em­peror Yongzheng of Qing (reign: 1723–1736) had the Western Qing tombs’ Tai Mau­soleum built here. His son Em­peror Qian­long (reign: 1736–1795) held a memo­rial cer­e­mony for the dead every year here. Yishui ink­stones were pre­sented by lo­cal gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials to Em­peror Qian­long. The em­peror loved them so much that he or­dered 50 Yishui ink­stones, which were later granted to his courtiers. He des­ig­nated that Yishui ink­stones be used as tributes also. The Hsich’ing Ink­stone Man­ual of Com­plete Li­brary in Four Branches of Lit­er­a­ture has records of over 240 ink­stones. A large por­tion of the records cover var­i­ous Yishui ink­stones. Each of these ink­stones bears the in­scrip­tions and po­ems of Qing Em­per­ors. For ex­am­ple, Yan Ji­ax­ian, a fa­mous col­lec­tor of an­cient ink­stones, had a col­lec­tion of five Yishui ink­stones that were made dur­ing the pe­riod of Em­peror Kangxi (reign: 1662–1723) and Em­peror Qian­long. The pop­u­lar­ity of Yishui ink­stones at that time is ev­i­dent.

Though ink­stones are small, they em­body the thou­sand-year-old civil­i­sa­tion of the an­cient states of Yan and Zhao (what is now He­bei Prov­ince and its sur­round­ing ar­eas) and the his­tor­i­cal and cul­tural tra­di­tions of their vast lands. The art of mak­ing an­cient Yishui ink­stones was lost at the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury as a re­sult of fre­quent war­fare. Ac­cord­ing to the An­nals of Yix­ian County, “no one can make Yishui ink­stones be­cause the tech­niques failed to be handed down from past gen­er­a­tions!” It was not un­til in the 1980s that some folk artists be­gan to make them again.

Zou Hongli is an in­her­i­tor of Statelevel in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage and has worked with other ink­stone ar­ti­sans. They used Yishui ink­stones that Zou had col­lected as sam­ples and even­tu­ally re­vived the tech­niques for mak­ing them af­ter years of ef­forts.

Zou was born near the Yishui River. He is very fond of mak­ing ink­stones. This stu­dious man paid fre­quent vis­its to lo­cal ink­stone-mak­ing ar­ti­sans and sculp­tors so that he could learn from them. Af­ter years of ef­fort, he de­vel­oped a good com­mand of the tech­niques. At first, he tried to re­vive the tech­niques used for mak­ing the ink­stones and had lit­tle in­flu­ence on them. How­ever, this tena­cious man and his re­search and de­vel­op­ment team made un­remit­ting ef­forts. They made in­ge­nious use of nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als. Com­bin­ing tech­niques such as flat carv­ing, three­d­i­men­sional carv­ing, in­taglio, re­lief and open­work carv­ing; and in­te­grat­ing arts such as sculp­ture, paint­ing, cal­lig­ra­phy, stone carv­ing and wood carv­ing, they merged to­gether the vigour and sim­plic­ity of the north­ern style with the smooth­ness and del­i­cacy of the south­ern style. Later, they de­vel­oped over 100 kinds of artis­tic works with themes such as land­scapes, hu­man fig­ures, flow­ers and plants, fish and worms, birds and an­i­mals, tales and leg­ends, scenic spots and his­tor­i­cal sites, which were true to life and fea­tured var­i­ous poses and ex­pres­sions. With their per­sis­tence and cre­ativ­ity, Yishui ink­stones even­tu­ally were re­stored to their for­mer splen­dour and are a lo­cal spe­cial­ity of Yix­ian County in He­bei Prov­ince.

Yishui ink­stones have been world fa­mous for cen­turies as a re­sult of their pro­found his­tory, fine nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als and unique artis­tic style. The Yishui ink­stones are an im­por­tant part of the pro­found his­tory of the cul­ture and art of Chi­nese ink­stones. Mod­ern Yishui ink­stones made us­ing re­stored tech­niques are char­ac­terised by their fine tex­ture, sim­ple carv­ings and in­tri­cate pat­terns. Dis­till­ing the essence of var­i­ous arts and mak­ing use of lines nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring in the raw ma­te­ri­als that are used, the new gen­er­a­tion of ar­ti­sans en­dowed Yishui ink­stones with tra­di­tional an­tique flavour and ro­man­tic, mod­ern fea­tures through their in­ge­nious carv­ings.

Con­tin­u­ing the Leg­end with Elab­o­rate Carv­ing

To­day, ma­te­ri­als for mak­ing Yishui inkslabs are mostly quar­ried from Huang­boyang Cave on Zhong­nan Moun­tain in Yix­ian County. They are usu­ally light pur­ple grey hy­dro­genic rocks. Some of them are dot­ted with dark green or pale yel­low stripes, or dark pur­ple, dark green page-shaped stro­ma­to­lites known as “pur­ple jade stone” or “dark green jade stone.” Ink­stone ar­ti­sans make great use of the stro­ma­to­lites and var­i­ous stripes in their art­ful carv­ings. The raw ma­te­ri­als be­come splen­did jade­like works of art. The Yishui ink­stones

have con­tin­ued to at­tract more and more at­ten­tion be­cause of their artis­tic value.

Af­ter more than 10 years of in­ten­sive study, Zou Hongli brought forth the new by re­vi­tal­is­ing the old, re­al­is­ing the trans­for­ma­tion of Yishui ink­stones from more util­i­tar­ian to be­ing cre­ated for or­na­men­tal value by and large. In 1997, to cel­e­brate the re­turn of Hong Kong to the mother­land, Zou led his team of over 10 ar­ti­sans to cross moun­tains and rivers to search for fine ma­te­ri­als. They re­peat­edly re­vised their de­signs and made ink­stones day and night. Af­ter sev­eral months of ef­forts, a gi­gan­tic stone was found. It be­came known as the “Re­turn­ing Ink­stone.” It weighs five tons and is dis­played at the Great Hall of the Peo­ple in Bei­jing. The suc­cess of the gi­gan­tic Chi­nese ink­stone stim­u­lated Zou’s en­thu­si­asm. In 1999, to cel­e­brate the 50th an­niver­sary of the found­ing of the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China, Zou de­signed and cre­ated a gi­gan­tic ink­stone that weighs 30 tons. It be­came known as the “Nine Drag­ons of China.” It is now dis­played at the China Mil­len­nium Mon­u­ment in Bei­jing. In 2006, Zou cre­ated an un­prece­dented ink­stone trea­sure. It was called “Ris­ing Dragon Ink­stone of China” and fea­tured many carv­ings, such as 56 drag­ons and nine tor­toises. It is 14.6 me­tres long, weighs over 60 tons, and is grand and mag­nif­i­cent. With its peer­less vol­ume, weight and crafts­man­ship, it has been writ­ten into the China Records.

Zou has de­vel­oped gi­gan­tic ink­stones one af­ter an­other with his unique ma­te­ri­als and tech­ni­cal abil­ity. He has cre­ated the cat­e­gory of gi­gan­tic ink­stones. The “Guiyuan Ink­stone” and “Chrysan­the­mum and Peony” are other ex­am­ples of huge Yishui ink­stones made with his con­sum­mate crafts­man­ship. These works are a mag­nif­i­cent feat in the his­tory of ink­stones and rep­re­sent an­other artis­tic level of ink­stone pro­duc­tion.

In 2008, un­der the ap­proval of the State Coun­cil of China, the tech­niques for mak­ing Yishui ink­stones were in­cluded on the list of the sec­ond batch of State-level in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage items. Zou ac­cepted some ap­pren­tices and taught them the tech­niques. He es­tab­lished the Yanx­i­adu Vo­ca­tional School of Yishui Ink­stone Mak­ing and in­vited fa­mous sculp­tors, cal­lig­ra­phers and pain­ters from the Cen­tral Academy of Fine Arts and other uni­ver­si­ties to give les­sons and pass on these skills. As a re­sult of his ef­forts, mod­ern sculp­ture, paint­ing and cal­lig­ra­phy have been in­te­grated into the cre­ation of Yishui ink­stones, in­ject­ing new vigour into this time-hon­oured art. Peo­ple now paint and draw pic­tures of Yishui ink­stones. The ink­stones are like flow­ers blos­som­ing on the bank of the Yishui River.

To­day’s great hall of Yishui Ink­stones at Yanx­i­adu in Yix­ian County, He­bei Prov­ince is like a mu­seum of his­tory and cul­ture. The small ink­stones on dis­play are dainty and ex­quis­ite and fea­ture su­perb crafts­man­ship. There are a great va­ri­ety of medium-sized ink­stones also that are ex­quis­ite be­yond com­par­i­son. The gi­gan­tic ink­stones are like grand, mag­nif­i­cent ships. They re­late leg­ends such as Laozi Leav­ing Hangu Fort, Taibai Be­com­ing Drunken, Eight Im­mor­tals Cross­ing the Sea, Chang’e Fly­ing to the Moon, and a Jour­ney to the West. The Dragon and Phoenix Ink­stone sym­bol­ises the Chi­nese na­tion. There are ink­stones in hun­dreds of dif­fer­ent shapes rep­re­sent­ing Chi­nese cul­ture. One will mar­vel at the in­ge­nu­ity and su­perb crafts­man­ship of the ar­ti­sans and the time-hon­oured his­tory of Yishui ink­stones when see­ing these works.

Ink­stones are re­lated to men of let­ters in China and are re­garded as the “em­bod­i­ment of pro­found Chi­nese his­tory and cul­ture.” Ink­stones sym­bol­ise the time-hon­oured his­tory and civil­i­sa­tion of China. They are valu­able in mod­ern so­ci­ety. The world is chang­ing a lot, but they are still valu­able.

Yishui ink­stones have a his­tory of over 1,000 years. In spite of many ups and downs, this craft has been passed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion for cen­turies. The leg­endary ink­stones con­tinue to break new ground with dis­tinc­tive carv­ings and unique and ex­quis­ite raw ma­te­ri­als.

An ink­stone

Zou Hongli, an Yishui ink­stone crafts­man

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