Saturday, May 5, 2012

Beautiful Things I Can't Afford: Duan Inkstone

This is a beautiful piece of stone. It’s for sale, too. According to the owner of the Zhonghe Writing Studio, he’s able to offer it for a the low price of 58900 NT (about $2000 US) only because he bought it in the early 1950’s.

Wait, what? Why is this small piece of stone (about 10” x 6” x 3”) worth so much?

To begin with, this is not just any stone. It's an inkstone (硯臺, yantai) - one of the four traditional treasures of the Chinese scholar’s studio. The other three are the writing brush, paper, and ink cakes. In the days before readymade ink, a scholar would need to grind ink himself. Cakes of ink made from pine soot and animal glue would be pressed against the inkstone with a few drops of water. Using only the slightest pressure, a scholar would trace the form of a circle on the stone’s surface. Grinding ink takes time, but it’s not hard work; many calligraphers and painters use this time as a kind of meditation to think about what they will write or paint.

As for the stone itself, it needs to have an appropriate texture. If it is too smooth, the ink won’t grind down - too rough and the ink will quickly cake and dry. The best inkstones have a surface that’s runze (潤澤), a word that translates to something like sleek. But used to describe an inkstone, runze describes a specific kind of feeling. It’s something like the experience of touching fine calf’s skin - the feeling that something is softly resisting the motion of your finger across its surface. A good inkstone feels soft, supple, and cold.  It’s the same texture of stone that I imagine Pygmalion would have chosen for his statue of Venus.

If you touch a high quality inkstone, moisture and oil from your finger will linger briefly on its surface. Take a deep breath and exhale on its surface, and drops of water will stick to the surface. Some shop owners swear that stone of sufficient quality will allow you to leave your ink overnight without drying.

The Chinese, devoted proponents of lists and ranking, have established four “famous” kinds of stone that can rise to this level. Each is linked to a specific locality where it is found and, less explicitly, to a point in history when it was first made popular. The stone offered at the Zhonghe Writing Studio is a Duan 端 stone, a kind of volcanic tuff from Guangdong province. Duan stone is known for its greenish cast as well its propensity to have eye-like inclusions. This kind of stone was first made popular by the Qianlong emperor in the eighteenth century. Because of its fairly recent rise to popularity, quarries in Guangdong were able to supply high-quality pieces through the middle of the twentieth century despite an ever-rising demand. According to the boss at Zhonghe, however, production of the best pieces has slowed down over the past thirty years. He tells me that the price of uncut stone has tripled. Moreover, new pieces of the highest quality with a thickness like this example are no longer available at any price.

And, of course, a stone is usually finished. Scholars’ objects are often carefully created images of their master, and inkstones can come in any number of shapes. Some are carved into birds, beasts, dragons, or lizhi mushrooms. Others, are left almost entirely natural with the edges of the “wild” rock left intact. This inkstone strikes a balance between these two extremes. It has been carved into a plain rectangle with slightly rounded edges. Its front surface has been left almost entirely bare. The only exception is a pine tree in light relief. 

Pine trees are one of the three friends of winter in Chinese tradition (with plum and bamboo). It symbolizes understated moral uprightness and stalwart determination amidst the worst of conditions. On the reverse of the stone is a high mountain cliff with tufts of grass. 

Note how the shape of the designs, especially the pine tree on the front, follow the natural imperfections in the stone. The goal is not to cover these fissures and inconsistencies. Instead, the design calls our attention to their inherent beauty, inviting us to look closer.

But this stone was meant to be used, not just admired; let’s consider a bit more carefully the function of an inkstone in the Chinese study. John Hay has eloquently written about the relationship of ink and paper to a Chinese artist’s soul. In his analysis, blank paper is a kind of empty space. Using ink, an artist invests a piece of his soul into this emptiness, filling it with his energy and will.* A completed work of calligraphy or painting, then, is always a self portrait no matter what the subject matter.

What Hay neglects is the fact that sticking one’s soul to a piece of paper is tricky work. All traces of an artist’s hand on the paper’s surface are indexical - they are direct evidence of his effort. However, not every attempt results in a piece that successfully represents his soul. Some attempts fail, either through a loss of concentration or a deficiency in execution. The former class of failure is more serious, as an insipid but correctly written character shows an incomplete connection with the work - a less than complete investiture of self. It will always detract from a work more than an inspired mistake.

Take, for example, my calligraphy practice yesterday:

I was copying the Thousand-Character essay from a model book by the Ming literatus Zhu Yunming (pictured left). I’m not a sage of calligraphy yet (ha!), but sometimes my writing is able to develop a rhythm. After writing the character 水 (second column from the right, second character), I accidentally started to write an incorrect character. I indicated this by making a small circle and writing the correct character, 玉, next to it. Although this is a mistake, it doesn’t significantly distract from the work as a whole.

Compare this to my treatment of the character 號 in the next line (first character, rightmost column).** Something about the swirling circles in Zhu’s original shook my concentration. The result looks stilted and awkward, but it’s technically correct. Ordinarily, I would burn this work without showing anyone; because of my lapses in concentration, I don’t think that it represents me. Ink may be the stuff of my soul, but there is no guarantee that I’ll be able to lodge it into a piece of blank paper every time.

I think of paper as a target, like archery. Ink is my arrow, my brush a bow. My inkstone is a bowstring. It fixes ink to brush, like nocking an arrow on a strong gut string.

And while ink cakes and paper are used up and brushes wear down and are discarded, an ink stone will never break or wear out. Even when bought new, a good inkstone will slowly break in over time as its user forms a personal connection to the stone. In this way, they are something like a Martin guitar. I have heard it said that Martin guitars take twenty to thirty years for their sound to “open up”. Supposedly, guitars age differently depending on the playing habits of their owners. Strumming, fingerpicking, or even frequent soloing can be heard in the resonance of the instrument and richness of certain overtones. Years of devoted use will yield an instrument that reflects its owner and is more responsive to his needs.

For an inkstone, long years of careful use will produce a subtle circular indentation where years of grinding has worn down the surface. This pattern of wear makes a stone easier to use, as ink will collect and pool in the center. In addition to its practical value, signs of honest use add significant value to a piece for collectors.

Traditionally, inkstones were passed down in scholarly families. Using a stone that bore the marks of generations of honest use was a form of social performance. Scholars were the elites in traditional China; displaying and using your ancestral ink stone was solid proof that you were an established member of that class.

Scholarly performance often happened at home. When elites entertained visitors, they would often incorporate a calligraphic or painting performance into an evening’s activities. But scholarly performance not limited to the home. When sitting for government-run exams in the Ming and Qing dynasties, candidates would carefully package their inkstones with their other scholarly tools and take them to the examination site.*** Even now, a beautiful inkstone still makes a powerful statement about its owner and his connection to a traditional culture of Chinese literacy. For this reason, inkstones are still important heirlooms in scholarly and artistic families.

All this to say that an inkstone can become a friend and helpmeet for its user, a responsive tool for art and personal expression, and a powerful token of social status. The rarity of their materials, combined with their potential for personal and social importance drives the price of top quality pieces ever upward. And yet, when you hold a work of art like this in your hand, the price seems entirely sensible. I already own a small Duan inkstone, so my covetousness of this stone feels like subtle treachery against an old friend. Or maybe I’m just telling myself that because I don’t have $2000 to spend!

* Hay writes that his understanding of this process is drawn from Bachellard’s conception of poetic space. See John Hay: “The Human Body as a Microcosmic source of Macrocosmic Values in Calligraphy,” in Kassulia, Ames and Dissanayake, eds., Self as Body in Asian Theory and Practice, Albany State University of NY Press (1993)

** Yes, of course I know that Chinese calligraphy is usually written from right to left. There are exceptions. My writing is one of them.

*** I’m always reminded of the anti-government revolt described by Jonathan Spence in In Search of Modern China, where rioting exam-takers threw their precious ink stones at the corrupt examiners. That’s a protest that was both meaningful and potentially deadly.

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