Secretive craft of inksticks has fed artists, calligraphers for centuries
By Qu Zhi
A middle-aged man in white undershirt stands in a room among 200 oil lamps. The room, with no windows and its walls blackened by ingrained smoke, looks like a coal mine. Yet when surrounded by rings of twinkling lights with thin wisps of smoke curling up, the scene turns beautiful.
It has been an hour since he lighted all the lamps. The man of spare frame puts on his linen work gloves and starts approaching each lamp, removing the shades made of blue porcelain. He then carefully brushes the soot off into a bowl. The soot is used as the basic material of inksticks.
Traditionally, Chinese ink for painting and calligraphy is made in the form of a dry stick, flat cake or other shape. Then it is ground on an inkstone with water to make the liquid ink. After the entire endeavor, the man has obtained a mere 150 grams of soot (from tung oil). This is the start of the production of inksticks at the workshop in Jixi County of eastern China’s Anhui Province.
“As the ancient proverb goes, ‘Be scrupulous and succinct in the use of ink as if it were gold.’ Thus, you can see how precious one piece of inkstick could be,” says Feng Liangcai, one of the most skilled living craftsmen making Hui inksticks.
Of the various kinds of Chinese inksticks, the Hui inkstick (hui mo 徽墨), originally produced in Anhui Province, is considered the best of its kind — so much so that it has become a generic term for inkstick in China.
The earliest artifacts of Chinese inks are charred materials that can be dated to the 12th century BC, while Huizhou ink was first made by Xi Chao and Xi Yan from northern China’s Hebei Province. During the late Tang Dyansty (AD 618-907), inksticks had to be moved to She Prefecture to escape the wars being raged in the rest of the country.
Although an incompetent ruler, the then emperor Li Yu, known as “the last ruler of the Southern Tang,” was a lyric poet and a great calligrapher. Since he was obsessed with poetry, calligraphy and Chinese in-wash paintings, Hui inkstick was stipulated as a tribute to the emperor.
The imperial government made an official position for Xi Tinggui, offspring of the inventor of Hui inksticks and rendered him a royal family name, Li. An old Chinese saying states: “It is easier to get a thousand pieces of gold than a piece of inkstick made by the Li family.”
Later, masters of inkstick manufacturing sprouted around She Prefecture, and in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) the Hui inkstick production prevailed.
The top-quality Hui inkstick is aromatic and as hard as jade. But when ground on a ceramic inkstone with water, it is smooth without hearing the whir of collision. The ground liquid ink in turns has various grades, or layers, of black — from light to heavy, dry to lucid. Even after hundreds of years, its color on paper or silk will not change.
“Even though inkstick is no longer a daily or major stationery for most Chinese now, it will never fade out in history,” Feng tells Shanghai Daily. “Especially for artists in calligraphy and Chinese ink-wash painting, it is irreplaceable.”
Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Feng, 60, has dedicated himself to studying, producing and developing Hui inksticks for more than 40 years.
His humble workshop sits on a narrow street amid many small stores and would be little noticed if not for two plaques hanging on the eaves, written by Li Keran and Han Tianheng, two of China’s most respected masters of art. Their works now can be auctioned for tens of millions of yuan. Both are Feng’s clients.
The mellow fragrance of ink greets visitors as soon as they walk into the workshops that make Hui inksticks. In the corridors of the 2-floor workshop lie many bamboo baskets, all neatly arranged with inksticks inside. They are accomplished hui mo waiting to be dried.
With mass mechanization taking over every field of industry, Feng’s workshop is one among a handful that still insist on collecting soot in the ancient way. From gathering soot to modeling the inksticks, trimming the edges of the ink cakes to coloring the patterns of inksticks in different tints, Feng appreciates the old craft.
“Of course there are machines to collect soot now and we sometimes use them for quantity production,” says Fang Shegeng, who is in charge of the workshop. “But for the top-quality ones, we do it manually. The soot is more delicate in this way and the texture of inkstick is totally different.”
In addition to tung oil soot, pine is an alternative for making soot for the best Hui inksticks. But only aged pines can be used.
After collecting soot, the craftsmen mix it with animal glue; the best glue is made of antlers. “Today you can purchase animal glue in the market but the quality is too out of condition to be qualified,” Feng says.
According to Feng, the manufacturers routinely take out collagen when boiling animal horns into glue to use for more expensive skincare products. This seriously affects the quality of the ink.
“So we decided to make our own animal glue. For 500 grams of antlers, you can only get 50 grams of glue,” he says.
The craftsman also adds different TCM and other ingredients to the glue and soot. “For top-class inksticks, 24k gold is the least-expensive ingredient,” says Feng.
The stunning list of mixing ingredients includes bear gall, jade bits, pearls, powder of rhinoceros horn, musk, borneol and more. Premium pine soot inkstick is even said to be edible and has benefits for health.
One piece of premium inkstick the size of an index finger can cost 6,000 yuan.
When Empress Dowager Cixi went to Xi’an seeking wartime refuge during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the skin on her back became sore and scaly, and it reportedly was inkstick that cured her disease.
“TCM is mainly used to protect the inkstick against rot since it uses animal glue, and it also helps to send out fragrance,” Fang says.
Preparing and mixing ingredients is the first and most exclusive part of the inkstone manufacturing process. Hence, from ancient times to now, inkstick production is purely a family business. The secret of an inkstick recipe will pass only to the offspring of the craftsman.
“When making up premium inksticks, I never let others be involved in the process,” Feng says. “In the past, the secrets bureau visited the workshop every year as protective actions for the inkstick production.”
The inkstick initially resembles a piece of black dough. In order to blend the ingredients altogether evenly, the craftsmen must swing an iron hammer continually on the ink dough. The hammer weighs four kilograms.
“It required 5,000 beats on each ink dough in the past. But now since there is a chemical made for blending, a dozen or so beats are enough,” says Fang.
Each Hui inkstick has its own style, pattern and shape. And for artists and refined scholars, inksticks are so important that they usually participate in designing the inkstick’s mould.
Peng Yulin, a great politician and artist in the late Qing Dynasty, always had plum blossom in his customized inkstick. The man lost the love of his life due to unequal social ranks.
Since “plum blossom” was a letter in his lover’s name, Peng treated the flower as his soul mate. He asked the craftsman to make an inkstick mould according to his ink-wash painting of plum blossom. Using the customized inksticks, he painted 100,000 plum blossoms to memorialize his lover.
“Refined scholars usually rest their emotions on this small inkstick,” Feng says. “So throughout the ages, artists and literary academics have liked to customize their own inksticks and give them a name. When looking at these inksticks, you are looking into a story or the moments of the greats’ lives.”
A craftsman mixes musk with ink dough so it will send out fragrance. He will then swing an iron hammer on the dough to blend it evenly.
The room for dying inksticks
A craftman trims the edge of linksticks to make a better appearance.
Soft inksticks are carefully gilded before being modeled and dried.