chinese ink

Chinese Inkstones

An inkstone (or ; Japanese: 硯 suzuri) is literally a stone mortar for the grinding and containment of ink. Traditional Chinese ink was usually solidified into sticks for easier transport and preservation. Even a small amount of water could be applied to the end of a stick of ink, and that end would be ground with the flat surface of the ink stone. A larger quantity of ink could be ground from a small pool of water placed on the inkstone. Water could be stored in a water-holding cavity on the inkstone itself, as was the case for many Song Dynasty (960-1279) inkstones. The water-holding cavity or water reservoir in time became an ink reservoir for later inkstones. Water was usually kept in a ceramic container and sprinkled on the inkstone.

The inkstone, together with the ink brush, ink (stick) and paper, are the four writing implements traditionally known as the Four Treasures of the Study.


The inkstone is Chinese in origin and is used in East Asian calligraphy and painting, and other forms of brush painting. Extant inkstones date from antiquity in China. However, the true age of inkstones began in the Tang Dynasty (618-905) and reached its height in the Song period. Extant Song period inkstones can be of great size and often display a delicacy of carving. Song inkstones can also exhibit a roughness in their finishing. Dragon designs in the Song period often reveal an almost humorous rendition; the dragons often seem to smile. From the subsequent Yuan period, in contrast, dragons display a ferocious appearance. A second great age of inkstone manufacture was during the reign of the Emperor Qianlong (Ch'ien-lung) (1736-1796). The Emperor Qianlong had his own imperial collection of inkstones catalogued into a twenty-four chapter compendium entitled Xiqing yanpu (Hsi-ch'ing yen-p'u). Many of these inkstones are still extant in the Palace Museum collection in Taiwan.

Books and scholarship on Chinese inkstones exist chiefly in Japan, where a long bibliography on the subject exists. Inkstones should be appreciated in the context of the traditional scholar's studio culture and the appreciation of furnishings, antiques, paper, seals and all other associated objects. Members of the Chinese literati, such as the Song period's Ouyang Xiu, contributed greatly to this new culture.

Four Famous Varieties

For serious calligraphers and painters, a good inkstone is as important as the quality of the ink. An inkstone will affect the quality and texture of the ink that is ground upon it. Four kinds of inkstones are especially noted in inkstone art history and are popularly known as the "Four Famous Inkstones."

  • The first is Duanshi stone (Japanese: Tankei) (端石砚) from Duanxi, Guangdong (pictured at top). Duan stone is a volcanic tuff, commonly of a purple to a purple-red color. There are various distinctive markings such as eyes that were traditionally valued in the stone. A green variety of the stone was mined in the Song period. Duan inkstones are carefully categorized by the mines (k'eng) from which the raw stone was excavated. Particular mines were open only for discrete periods in history. For example, the Mazukeng mine was originally opened in the Qianlong period (1736-1795), although reopened in modern times.
  • She stone (Japanese: Kyū) (歙砚) from She County, Anhui. This stone is a variety of slate and like Duan stone is categorized by the various mines from which the stone was obtained historically. It is a black color and displays a variety of celebrated gold-like markings. These inkstones likewise date from the late Tang period.
  • Of great rarity is Tao River stone (洮河砚) from South Gansu. This stone is no longer found today and was gathered from a river bottom in the Song period. The stone is crystalline and like jade. The stone bears distinct markings such as bands of varying shades. This stone can be easily confused with Duan stone of the green variety, but can be distinguished by a careful observation of its crystalline nature.
  • Chengni ceramic stone (澄泥砚) is a ceramic-manufactured inkstone. This process was begun in the Tang period and is said to have originated in Luoyang, Henan.


  • T.C.Lai, Treasures of a Chinese Studio, Hong Kong, 1976.
  • Kitabatake Sōji and Kitabatake Gotei, Chūgoku kenzai shūsei (A Compendium on Chinese Inkstones), Tokyo, 1980.
  • Kitabatake Sōji and Kitabatake Gotei, Suzuri-ishi gaku (An Inkstone Encyclopedia), Tokyo, 1977.
  • Yin-ting hsi-ch'ing yen-p'u (An Imperial Catalogue of the Western Brightness Collection of Inkstones), 24 chapters, preface 1778.

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