Estate & Retreat
Eastover Inkstone Museum
She Inkstones and Calligraphy
What are Inkstones?
Ever since there was paper and Chinese ink writing there were Inkstone wells as well. The earliest existing reference goes back to five thousand years ago. Often Inkstone wells are simply called Inkstones. The ordinary use of Inkstone is to use the Inkstick to rub on the stone to make the ink for writing and painting. Not every piece of stone can be made into an Inkstone though, you see, a stone that is too rough, when used to make the ink will come out with too many deposits that is damaging to the painting brush. Some might come out too thin and without enough intensity to make a lasting painting. Some Inkstone will absorb the ink quickly. Thousands of years ago the scholars and artists found that certain stones from a specific region, especially after the stone has been mined and buried under the ground for thousands of years, make the best inkwells. This is how She Inkstones became one of the Four Treasures of Chinese Study. Because of the popularity of Inkstone collecting, the decorative carvings of an Inkstone became a recognized and distinguished art itself pursued by artists and craftsmen throughout Chinese history.
North Song calligrapher Cai Ran (1012 -- 1067) once came to She county in the hopes of getting a She inkwell. He set up a table in front of the Changqin Tower (this can be seen from the painting by Yao Bin) to sell his calligraphy. His calligraphy was immediately purchased by the people walking by as soon as he wrote them. For the ink he brought a brick ink well. It absorbs the ink much more than a She Inkstone, so he often spent a lot of time making the ink. Sometimes his calligraphy did not come out as expected because of the lack of an appropriate ink well. One day, an old monk saw this and laughed hard "Your calligraphy is full of vitality, but your ink stone is the cause of your failed brush strokes." Cai said"Not to pretend in front of you, but I did not come here to sell calligraphy. I came only to get a good She Inkstone." The monk loved Cai Ran's talent, so he returned to the temple and brought him a She Inkwell. While feeling the Inkstone, he noticed its hardness and durability. He felt the dampness of the mountain and it’s smoothness like that of a baby's skin. With this stone it was easy to make the ink with a touch of water; the color of the ink was clean and transparent. Knocking with his fingers, the sound was crisp and clear. Cai Ran loved his Inkstone and could not put it down. He spontaneously wrote “Pure as jade with delicate fine grains, No sound can be heard while rubbing the Inkstick. I would ask for fifteen cities of the Ching dynasty in exchange for this Inkwell”. From this we can see how much the scholars treasured the She Ink stones.
Almost every historically known Chinese artist or scholar including Wang Xizhi (303--361), Su Dongbo (1037 -- 1101), O Yangxiu (1007 -- 1072), Li Bai (701 -- 762) etc. had visited She county, Hui Zhou in search of a priceless She Inkwell. Because of this and also the very different prosperous economic periods, a lot of historical architecture and monumental calligraphy carvings left by the famous poets and artists was brought to this region. Wealth and natural beauty like Huangshan, Jiu Huashan, etc. inspired and produced a lot of historically very well-known artists and scholars.
What is the Geological Components of She Inkstones?
She Inkstones are mostly composed of rare slate or powdered sandy slate stones, unlike Cheng Ni stones which are so soft even a finger nail can leave a mark on the stone. She Inkstones is hard and as smooth as a baby's skin. Not everywhere in Huizhou where miners excavate a portion of the earth are they able to find stones suitable for making Inkstones. Even if a mine was found, there is only a small section with a thickness of 0.4 to 4 meters which can be exploited. Among the stones chosen for exploitation, less than 1.87% can be taken for Inkstone candidates. Most of the slate stones will be too rough or too easy to chip to be able to make into Inkstones. The grains and marks found on the stone are different chemical compositions that are produced after it is oxidized. For example, Gold marks are brown iron ore (limonite), and Gold Star: pyrite. There is one kind of red Inkstone which is a mudstone and looks similar to Duan Inkstone; it also has different type of eyes. This is a new find in the Huizhou area; locally it's called She Red. The best Inkstone pieces are the old mined stones, which mean the stone was exploited hundreds or thousands years ago, buried and oxidized underground. The two major differences of old and new Inkstones are: new stones have a lot of fine pores that absorb ink in a much greater volume than the aged ones. New stones will not have crisp metal sound when knocked on by the finger tip. (Being able to identify an old piece of stone is something learned from experience.) Also, a good piece of stone should not have calcite marks or even hair thin cracks. The old mine stone will also feel very cold and damp.
Where are the Major She Inkstone Mines?
The She Inkstone mines are mainly located in the region of old Hui Zhou. (By old Hui Zhou we mean a few dynasties back.) In the old days, Hui Zhou included the region of Wuyuan, currently in Jiangxi province which has some mines that were exploited around Tang Dynasty (1200 years ago). There are some hundreds to thousands of year old Inkstone mines in Shexian (currently a county in Hui Zhou), Xiuling, Jingxian, and Huangshan etc. According to geological research, this region was an ocean of sea many years ago. After the stones were mined and buried under the ground for another thousand years, they became fossilized. Next they were moved, brushed by water and sand, and the end result was a very good Inkstone.
There are several major kinds of She Inkstones from different mines. All these mines were in the Old Huizhou region, until it was subdivided back in history. Now they are distributed among the same mountain ridge and this is where the Dragon's tail and Dragon's head names come from.
Wuyuan, Jianxi Dragon's Tail stone
This is the most exploited and famous She Inkstone. To collectors this is also the most valuable kind of stone. Among people who know about She Inkstones, the name She Inkstone has its specific meaning ---- whether it is a stone from Wuyuan, or Jianxi, but still carved by an artist in She county. A genuine She Inkstone is a Dragon's Tail stone carved by a She artist. For thousands of years this has been the case and still it's true for serious collectors.
There are several reasons for this. First of course is these stones are the highest quality as Inkstones. They are very smooth and easy to make ink from. The ones that are buried under water are even better quality and much rarer. As one holds it in the hand the dampness is felt immediately. These Inkstones really matches the She Inkstone fame: You can breathe on the stone to make ink out of it. Another reason is the look of the stone. Because of these reasons, they have been known for thousands of years. Of course this leads to rarity and they are becoming rarer. Nowadays it's very hard to find pieces that are perfect as almost all of them have some defects. The most common defect is undesirable stone veins that do not match with its grain. Another defect is hair thin cracks that are not easy to see by eye. By the beginning of Song dynasty, genuine old mine dragon's tail stone was already exhausted from production and nowadays only small pieces or limited numbers of big high quality pieces can be found from carvers or collectors.
Daban Gold Star Patch, also Jianxi stone
This is another major type of stone that She artists and merchants like to make Inkstones from. They are not very expensive and good for making Inkstones. It’s easy to find big pieces with beautiful Gold patches. Artists like them because they can use them to make big pieces of landscape, figure, or any other impressive carvings. Almost all achieved artists have big pieces of their work on this kind of stones including Jianchen, Sulu, Guihai, Yongchen, Mingxue, and others. They provide an inexpensive alternative for some artists who need a big piece of Inkstone for use, and these Inkstones are more affordable and practical. For the few famous carving artists, because their art works are so well appreciated, Inkstones on these big pieces are also becoming valuable.
Daguyuan stone, from She county, Huizhou. (The mountain is also identified as the Dragon's Head)
In She county, there are other Inkstone mines that were also exploited thousands of years ago. They have beautiful very dark Inkstones and are easier to mine than old dragon's tail because it has not been exploited much for the last thousand years. These Inkstones feels like baby's skin, they tap with very crisp metal sound, and they help to make a wonderfully fine ink just like the dragon's tail stone. As a story goes, people dug out the Inkstones from She county and shipped them to Wuyuan, Jianxi. There they were buried in the mountains of Wuyuan and years later when they were dug out, they were presented to the Inkstone merchants, and the stones were highly evaluated and appraised. Daguyuan mines are one of those old mines. Large Inkstones made from these mines are exported to Japan and sold as Lao Kang She Inkstones. Most people cannot tell the difference between the Dragon's Tail She Inkstone and Daguyuan stone. We tell the difference by experience and also by their character. Daguyuan stones are usually very dark and some have silver stars. They have no defects at all. For most artists, the prices between two different stones can be very big. For example, in Yongchen, a genuine old mine dragon's tail stone, a carver can ask for 15,000 RMB. For a good size Inkstone made of Daguyuan stone, they will just ask for a few hundred RMB.
Jiujian Brush Sweep Mark stone, from Jiujian, Jianxi.
These are newly found old mine stones. They are very smooth and have beautiful fine marks that look as if a brush has been swept through it. Also they have very intricate gold star patch marks too. We saw some very beautiful pieces produced by very good artists. For example Guihai likes to use these to carve his life-like pieces. His unique figure carving combined with different gold patch formations on the top of the stone are vividly presented on these pieces. There are Old Mine Brush Sweep Dragon’s Tail stones; But they are very rare and much more expensive.
Jade Mountain stone
These stones are softer than others and also a little bit easier to find. The rare ones are perfect Fish Egg grain ones. Sometimes it's rare to see a piece with line thin eyebrows marks in pairs. But most of the Jade Mountain Inkstones are cheap but not easy to make ink with.
Old Mine Miao Qian Qing ---- Front Temple Blue
These Inkstones are found in front of a temple in south of She county at the village of Zhou Jia Cun. They are beautiful with almost a jade like green color, sometimes with beautiful long eyebrows marks like the one under Jiangchen's Inkstone portfolio.
These Look and feel just like a Duan Inkstone and are found in Anhui, Xiuling County. Sulu Chen liked to use these to carve them into copies of old antique Inkstones. By smoking and other procedures, they look like perfect real "antiques". But these are different from cheap molded Inkstones made from inferior casting material; he actually spent a lot of time and skill to carve these to look similar to Duan Inkstones.
How to Select Collectible She Inkstones
Many people who visit She county complain that the Inkstones there are so expensive. There are two reasons for it.
1) She carving artists charge expensive prices for their labor and skill. As you will see later, they are not ordinary craftsmen anymore. She Inkstones is not just a widely collected craft anymore. A lot of the pieces are sold as art pieces, among the known and recognized artists, each artist has a price range and that keeps moving up. Prices for She Inkstones peaked in 1995. As a whole market prices came down a lot. As the Japanese (the biggest buyer of She Inkstones and Huizhou Inksticks) economy started recovering, prices started to move up again since 2005. But even during this big down turn, the few best artists kept their prices up and moving higher.
2) Almost all the artists I know only use their hands and chisels for working on each carving piece. The only time they use a machine is when they cut out a piece of stone. Even the last procedure of smoothing the stone is done by hand. Our artist Libing does all the rubbing and smoothing by himself, because he is afraid someone else will destroy the very fine, straight, and delicate sides of the Inkstone that he carved out. This might look like a simple job, but it’s a very special skill not everyone can do. He does not even trust his own wife to help him.
Generally speaking, the labor fee in She county is higher than any surrounding areas, even a wooden or silk box that's made there cost more, but we have to say that the quality is also much better and no other place can compare to it. Nowadays, most of the boxes you see in the local store or studio are made in Jianxi province.
Another kind of commercial product is replicas of famous artist’s pieces, especially from known artists like Sulu Chen, Jianchen Fang, Mingxue, Guihai, Yongchen, and etc. The merchants hire carvers to make these elaborated duplicates. If you see the same pattern of carvings in different stores, you now know how they get there. The workers at the other end usually get very little pay. What you enriched instead are the merchant’s pockets. A few winters ago we were at She county for more than six weeks and we saw how this is happening. Sulu Chen had a new design which he called: Bright Moon Shinning through the Pine Needles! He is the grandmaster of She classic Inkstone carving, but he is a very slow worker. One piece of art work usually takes him a long time. When we visited him, he showed us his new work which he had not finished yet. The following week when we visited one of the local stores, a replica of his piece already had appeared in the store and cost much less. Of course, we lost our interest in Sulu Chen's piece also. We told Sulu Chen the story, he explained how he feels helpless and that he cannot even have any helpers now, because through the helpers, the street merchants learn what he is carving.
Besides "She" commercial Inkstones, She County also makes a lot of different kinds of commercial Inkstones. One kind is ChengNi. Because ChengNi is basically a mud clay stone, it's soft and very easy to carve. Merchants can hire very cheap beginner carvers to make these Inkstones in large quantities. Another kind of commercial Inkstone is Inkcake Inkstones. Their appearance can be very attractive after some gold and brown colors are applied and they look antique. They are also called "Mu Yan".
She Inkstone Carving Artists
She Inkstones used to be collected as a valuable crafts and they were not treated as an art until the Qing dynasty. MI Fu who was a calligrapher, artist, and a collector, was the first one in Qing Dynasty, who started to take the natural beauty of the Inkstone into consideration of the carving design, but he did not make much impact and his view disappeared for another few hundred years. For the last fifty years, the father and son: Qinshu Fang and Jianchen Fang forever changed how She Inkstone carving is being viewed and evaluated. Not only did his innovation not just change how She Inkstones are being appreciated and collected, they more importantly brought new blood into this profession. All the carving artists including the old and young, the skilled or the new apprentice are affected by his ideas and innovations. We see these traces in Sulu Chen's work, even though his carvings are created more in the traditional carving style.
1) Jianchen is the richest and most famous She Inkstone carving artist. He is called the soul of Inkstone carving. For the last twenty years, he exhibited all over Asia including Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan. He sold one of his Inkstone carvings to the Japanese museum for 70, 000 USA dollars. We noticed all the younger generations respected his work and a lot of them have collections of his art work or his student Mingxue's art work. Jianchen is a very generous man. Besides working closely with his students, he brings a lot of exposure to his students by providing opportunities of exhibitions to them. He is also very generous in helping other people's students. We saw quite a bit of his signatures and comments on the rubbings of young carving artists who are students of Sulu Chen. In this way he enriched others and others respected him as one of the greatest artists.
2) Qinshu Fang -- Father of Jianchen Fang. Chengxia Fang -- sister of Jianchen Fang. Qinshu is of the older generation of She carving artists. He laid the foundation for a lot of the younger generations. We noticed all the very good carvers started with a very good classic carving skill including Jianchen Fang. Qinshu Fang, his son Jianchen Fang, and daughter Chengxia Fang became the heirloom of She Inkstone carving family. They were reported repeatedly on newspapers, central TV stations, and filmed by different film production companies.
3) Sulu Chen --- Same generation as Jianchen Fang. Currently She Inkstones are being classified as Cheng (Sulu) style and Fang (Jianchen) style. He is just like Jianchen Fang, recorded in all the written books about She Inkstones. As famous as he is, he is a loner. He had a lot of students early in his career. But for the last ten years, he has been working alone. Because of this, his pieces are also worth a lot of money. He does not produce much at all and he has a lot of serious collectors in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and other Asia countries. Even though he did not work closely with his students for the last ten years, they in a lot of way actually enriched a lot of his fame. Because no merchants in the local county had any of the students signed their names, they always would tell you any good pieces were by Sulu Chen, because he is recorded in the book.
4) Mingxue -- Godson and one of the most talented students of Jianchen Fang.
5)Ke, Guihai -- One of Sulu Chen's students who not only surpassed his teacher but also developed his own style and expanded his own horizon. Even Sulu has said he is the best now.
6) Ba, Yongchen -- Oldest student of Sulu Chen. Sulu Chen's landscapes were in the same style as Qinshu Fang. The classic realism was very real and detailed.
This concludes our article about Inkstones. We hope you enjoyed reading it and also hope that you may be inspired to start creating your own Inkstones.