Duanzhou Inkstone
2014-March-20 Source: Newsgd.com
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- An Elegant Symbol of Oriental Culture

In Baishi Village, the birthplace of Duanzhou inkstones, the sound of carving stones can be heard everywhere, either at the roadside or beside the ponds. It seems that every inkstone carver is anticipating the century miracle. In the village of around 100 households, we can see carvers every two or three steps away with their, heads immersed in the inkstones on their tables, left hands clutching ink snails, and right hands holding the hammers they need to turn inspiration into reality. Occasionally we come across young carvers born in 1990s who, wearing head phones and singing pop songs, are busy pounding away on their inkstones. They work for inkstone manufacturing factories and can earn about 3000 to 4000 yuan per month. Some of them etch different patterns on the rocks just for fun. Just like their ancestors a thousand years ago, these young artisans run over the seasons in the luster and dust of inkstones.

In the Tang Dynasty that witnessed the advent of many outstanding calligraphers, Duanzhou inkstones began to appear on the desks of the art form’s established scholars and artisans. At that time, Duanzhou inkstones stressed practical use, most of them shaped like dustpans with supporting feet. Because the grinding and water-holding areas were combined, such inkstones could contain vast pools of ink. In the later period of the mid-Tang Dynasty, Duanzhou inkstones evolved and developed just as many other art works did, giving birth to a variety of new shapes and patterns.

Inkstones in this era were no longer mere writing tools. They became a bridge between the gulf that separated of practical use and aesthetic content for far too long. Gradually, this apparatus, which was originally designed to simply grind ink sticks and dip brushes into ink, became a soulfully artistic craft that combined stone features, patterns, and carving techniques.

The dustpan-shaped inkstones became popular because they could contain an abundance of ink. Duanzhou inkstones also became highly reputed as one of the four famous names because of their high quality. In the circle of inkstones a scholar surnamed “Liang,” became a household name. Legend has it that in an imperial examination in the Tang Dynasty (618 -907) , oppressive snow storms shrouded the capital city. All the examinees’ ink quickly froze due to the frigid air. Liang from Duanzhou, however, was unfazed and finished the examination by blowing hot air towards his treasure ink stone. Upon hearing Liang’s story, the emperor immediately added the inkstone to the list of royal tributes. Thereafter, Duanzhou inkstones were said to outplay other inkstones in freezing winters, thus winning fame across the country and becoming beloved by scholars.

Competing with Duanzhou inkstones at that time were Shezhou inkstones from Anhui Province, which featured a fine jade-like texture. According to the Note of Liuyanzhai by Li Rihua, “Before Duanzhou inkstones became popular, Wushi stones (the raw materials used to make Shezhou inkstones) were regarded as the best.” Shezhou inkstones were used as imperial gifts. However, standing in comparison with Duanzhou inkstones, Shezhou inkstones were quickly deemed to be inferior. The great calligrapher Mr. Liu Gongquan also reckoned Duanzhou inkstones as the best, saying that “only Duanzhou can produce authentic inkstones.”Meanwhile, the excavation of Shezhou inkstones dwindled for nearly one hundred years after two pit collapse accidents in the Southern Song Dynasty, leaving them unable to compete with Duanzhou inkstones.

What makes Duanzhou inkstones well known as the best in the world is its nature of “dissolution”. If ink powder retreats from inksticks too quickly, “the undissolved ink will hurt brushes.” On the contrary, if the ink powder retreats too slowly, “grinding an inkstick resembles riding a sluggish horse, which calls for whipping every few steps forward.” The dissolution speed of Duanzhou inkstones proceeds perfectly between such extremes. “The spontaneous flow of the ink on brushes,” has enabled generations of calligraphers and painters to create rich and varied lines.

Stroking Duanzhou inkstones, we find that the surfaces are meticulously carved with either pines and clouds, or exuberant curve-leaf pomegranates, revealing both a strong build and feminine tenderness, leaving them both dynamic and serene. Simple inkstones take natural shapes-thick and round-producing infinite interest, while complex ones bear delicate and vivid carvings. The famous inkstone designer Liu Yanliang once said that the

inkstones of excellent texture and high artistic value tend to integrate exquisite carvings, paintings, poems, and seal engraving together. What makes Duanzhou inkstones beautiful is not only the raw stones excavated from ancient pits, but also the superb techniques of the craftsmen from Zhaoqing. The craftsmen carve the inkstones in accordance with each stone’s original shape and pattern in order to “turn the surface of different colors into mountains, transform the bug bitten parts to caverns, change the stone holes into the sun, the moon, and stars, carve the Ljardite into white clouds or rolling water.” These elements incorporate the conceptions of the Tang Dynasty poems and Song Dynasty proses, and attach the content of historical allusions, thereby displaying the grand rivers and mountains as well as the rich civilization of our motherland on the inkstones. Therefore, “an inkstone is an epitome of Chinese culture.”

In ancient China, scholars shared the tradition to deem things as the embodiments of personalities. Duanzhou inkstones, so to speak, represented “the nature of persistence and loyalty and the qualities of tenderness and smoothness,” which symbolized the personalities of Chinese scholars. Many scholars loved Duanzhou inkstones so much that they could not bear losing the inkstones. Some scholars called themselves “inkstone addicts” and were proud of this nickname. Famed courtier Chu Suiliang, in the Tang Dynasty, engraved four lines of inscriptions indicating ethics on the inkstone bestowed by Emperor Taizong immediately after he received it. In the Qing Dynasty, under Emperor Qianlong’s reign, an inkstone collector bought a Xiayanziexcavated Duanzhou inkstone with myna-eye patterns and Wen Zhengming’s inscription on it with 20 gold bars and a painting by Tang Bohu, a famous artist and scholar at that time. The inkstone was then saved in a box made of Hetian jade, which was carved with the inscription as an indication of treasure. The inscription reads “Though mock laugh at my buying an inkstone with gold bars, I consider the inkstone more valuable than gold. I obtained the inkstone by chance in the past twenty years, so it is as precious as my life.”

After several hundred years, most of the stories that have been passed down are about scholars and inkstones, or about how Duanzhou inkstones brought tremendous wealth. Only the Duanzhou Inkstone Inscriptions by Su Dongpo told the hardships of stone miners in Duanzhou. “About one thousand men pull the rope. One hundred workers transport stones.

Ropes are put down, giving out sparks, to excavate the treasure.” Of all the raw stones excavated, only 30% to 40% could be used. After any improper operation, “the cliff collapses, costing the lives of miners.”

Looking at the inkstone craftsmen and excavators that cluster in Baishi Village, we can not help but wondering whether a piece of artwork exists only as a pure miracle, if it can do nothing to affect people’s lives. Can paintings only be created by painters, sculptures by sculptors, compositions solely by musicians, novels by writers, and photos only by photographers? Why can’t the life of a person become a piece of artwork as well?

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Editor: Olivia
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