The Exquisite, Famed Yixian Inkstone
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.
Zou Hongli, an Yishui inkstone craftsman