Inksticks & Inkstones: A Chinese Tradition

Inkstones and inksticks are a crucial element in the creation the various forms of Chinese art, whether that is Chinese calligraphy (shu fa, or the art of character handwriting) or watercolors and brush paintings.

Ink in traditional Asian art is usually made of pine soot (charcoal) blended with animal fats into solid sticks. These inksticks are ground upon an "inkstone" along with a small amount of water to produce a fluid ink in the consistency required for whichever type of art the artist is creating. During the process of grinding the inkstick against the ink stone, more water is added. The inkstone has a reservoir where the ink is kept from evaporating.


Depending on the style of the artist, the grinding pattern is slightly different: Chinese calligraphers will grind in a flat, circular pattern, while Japanese calligraphers grind a single edge back and forth.

Some of the earliest inkstones are from ancient China and have been found in archaeological finds dating back to 300 to 400 BC. Often, these inkstones are prized as objects of art almost as much as calligraphy and paintings themselves. The inkstone became an extremely popular item in the pursuit of writing and drawing during the Han Dynasty. This only increased through the years and the dynasties: inkstones became a fundamental part of Chinese society through the Tang and Song dynasties. 

A practiced eye can identify which dynasty these ancient inkstones come from by the style of carvings: Song Dynasty inkstones may depict smiling dragons, while Yuan Dynasty inkstones exhibit fury.


There are four specific sorts of inkstones that are prized in Chinese art culture, known as the "Four Famous Inkstones" by calligraphy enthusiasts and historians. 

Duan inkstones are made from volcanic rock, with a reddish-purple color and unique marks throughout the stone. She inkstones are made of slate and comes with a black color flecked with gold elements. Tao inkstones are made from rock gathered from the bottom of the Tao River, with special markings. The color of these stones bears a strong resemblance to jade and is crystalline in structure. Chengni inkstones are ceramic inkstones, dating back to the Tang Dynasty somewhere in Henan Province.

These inkstones, along with a few other traditional implements like the inkstick, the brush, and rice paper, have a special name in Chinese art history called the Four Treasures of the Study. Usage of these tools is an important part of the art of Chinese calligraphy, and the striking beauty means that many artists place a premium on procuring only the most beautiful pieces for their studies.

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