An inkstone, a piece of polished stone no bigger than an outstretched hand, is an instrument for grinding ink, a collectible object of art, a token of exchange between friends or sovereign states, and an inscriptional surface on which texts and images are carved and reproduced. As such the inkstone is entangled with the production of elite masculinity and the culture of wen (culture, literature, civility) in China, Korea, and Japan for over a millennium. Curiously, this ubiquitous object in East Asia is virtually unknown in Europe and America.
The Social Life of Inkstones introduces its hidden history and cultural significance to scholars and collectors and in so doing, writes the stonecutters and artisans into history. Each of the five chapters is set in a specific place in disparate parts of the empire: the imperial workshops in the Forbidden City, the Duan quarries in Guangdong, inkstonecarving workshops in Suzhou and elsewhere in the south, and collectors’ homes in Fujian. Taken together, they trace the trajectories of the inkstone between court and society, and through the course of its entire social life. In bringing to life the people involved in making, using, collecting, and writing about the inkstone, this study shows the powerful emotional and technical investments that such a small object engendered.
This first book-length study of inkstones focuses on a group of inkstone carvers and collectors, highlighting the work of Gu Erniang, a woman transitioned the artistry of inkstone-making to modernity between the 1680s and 1730s. The sophistication of these artisans and the craft practice of the scholars associated with them announced a new social order in which the age-old hierarchy of head over hand no longer predominated.