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Ancient inkstones give insight into Tang Dynasty

JIANG JINSHI | 2019-07-04
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A twelve-peak inkstone of the Western Han Dynasty (left), a biyong-shaped inkstone of the Tang Dynasty (middle), and a dustpan-shaped inkstone of the Tang Dynasty (right) Photo: FILE


 

As the capital of one of the greatest dynasties in China, Chang’an was an international metropolis where the East met the West. Two markets have been identified as existing within this city. The West Market was a center of international trade where foreign merchants used camels to carry goods to China and bring Chinese goods back to their countries.

 

Design
Ink brushes, inksticks, paper and inkstones were essential tools for keeping records of trade activity in ancient China. Since ink brushes, ink and paper are easily eroded, there are no trace of these materials that were used in the Tang Dynasty. Luckily, as a durable writing material, many inkstones have survived the long history and been discovered in archaeological sites.


In ancient China, inkstones were a necessity for government officials, intellectuals and merchants. There are five Tang inkstones in the collection of the Tang West Market Museum in the city of Xi’an (the area where Chang’an used to be located). Besides a three-color glazed biyong multi-footed inkstone, the other four were excavated from the former site of the Tang West Market. These four inkstones bear witness to the culture inspired by the Silk Road and provide valuable evidence for the study of Tang stationery and writing accouterments.


Inkstones evolved from a rubbing tool for rubbing dyes or milling crops. After a long-term evolution, inkstones had developed into three types by the Tang Dynasty, known as the biyong-shaped, the dustpan-shaped and irregular-shaped inkstones.


Biyong used to be the name of the “school of the emperor,” the highest academy in the Zhou Dynasty (1056–256 BCE). Its architectural style was unique. It was a round building surrounded by water with bridges. The biyong-shaped inkstone evolved from the three-footed round inkstone developed during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE–220). As it developed, the grinding platform of the inkstone gradually became an enclosure and  swelled in the middle, forming an ink reservoir between the grinding platform and the surrounding fence, similar to the layout of the Biyong Academy. This is how the biyong-shaped inkstone derived its name.


The dustpan-shaped inkstone, just as its name suggests, is shaped like a dustpan supported by a pair of feet. The inkstone is higher at one end than the other, arranging its grinding platform at an angle. The dustpan-shaped inkstone was the most widespread in the Tang Dynasty. Most of the Tang inkstones had a dustpan shape.


As a rare style, the irregular-shaped inkstone is essentially a derivative of the dustpan-shaped inkstone, featuring a dustpan-shaped body surrounded by various decorations, thus forming different shapes that resemble turtles, lotus petals, mountains, etc.

 

Features
From the excavations of the West Market site, there is a biyong-shaped pottery inkstone and a dustpan-shaped ceramic inkstone. The dustpan-shaped stone, though higher at one end than the other, doesn’t have a smooth grinding platform but a fold between the higher and the lower ends, a shape designed to store the ink in the lowest part of the vessel. This inkstone is simple and elegant. The dustpan style has influenced the whole evolution of the inkstone. By the Ming Dynasty, the feet of the ink stone had been removed, leaving the form that has been adopted as the mainstream of inkstone shape until today.


The biyong-shaped inkstone excavated from the West Market site is a four-footed, gray pottery vessel. Its feet turn slightly outward, a design inspired by Northern-Dynasty pottery with supports that resembled the feet of animals. The main body of the inkstone is round, with its grinding platform at the same height as its rim. The ink reservoir that goes all the way round the bottom separates the grinding platform and its rim. Its rim is not vertical but curved slightly, forming an elegant narrow mouth. It was a common design of the biyong-shaped inkstone in the Tang Dynasty. Apart from this relatively common design, most of the three-color glazed biyong inkstones are quite small, the diameter of which are often 4cm or 5cm, with several feet or feet arranged in a ring around the bottom. Compared with the three-color glazed inkstone, gray pottery inkstones were much bigger and more functional, the design of which was handed down with little adjustment—the feet were removed or turned into the rim. Excavations also show that there were ceramic biyong-shaped warm inkstones (an inkstone equipped with a brazier that prevented the ink from freezing in winter) manufactured during the Ming and Qing dynasties.


Two irregular-shaped inkstones have been excavated from the site of the West Market, with one quite similar to the twelve-peak inkstone stored in the collection of the Palace Museum. This is an inkstone with a dustpan-shaped body surrounded by a rim shaped like twelve peaks of different heights. In the middle of the main peak is a statue of Nryana (a god who protects Buddhism with his Vajra in his hand) lifting the peak. The inkstone is supported by three feet, each one decorated with a statute of Nryana. This inkstone has attracted a lot of attention with its striking and beautiful design. Its dustpan-shaped body indicates that it was manufactured in the Tang Dynasty, the dustpan shape being a defining characteristic of Tang era inkstones.


 
Aesthetics
Usually, decorations are very rare on most of the dustpan-shaped and the biyong-shaped inkstones manufactured in the Tang Dynasty. Only a few were designed with floral or animal patterns, such as lions or cranes. Lions and cranes were popular animals in the Tang Dynasty. People of the time embroidered them on their clothing and their images are seen in many ancient paintings as they symbolized power or longevity. The biyong-shaped inkstones only have animal-feet designs on their legs. As for the three-color glazed stones, besides a few patterns on their feet, their main aesthetic value lies in their glaze, featuring brown (or amber), green and a creamy off-white.


The irregular-shaped inkstones are known for their various shapes, including those of mountains and peaks, turtles or wild ducks. Besides this, there are also some irregular stones with dustpan or biyong-shaped bodies surrounded by lotus-petal-shaped rims. The various designs and shapes make each of the Tang irregular-shaped inkstones  a piece of unique art.


Before the Tang Dynasty, most of the inkstones were made of stone, especially sandstone. During the period of Three Kingdoms, the Jin, and the Northern and Southern dynasties (220–589), celadon inkstones came forward in large numbers. Most of the inkstones excavated in southern China are celadon biyong-shaped, while the north was dominated by stone-made inkstones and a few pottery ones. When it comes to the Sui and the Tang dynasties, pottery inkstones are considered the mainstream, most of which were manufactured in Guozhou (present-day western Henan province). The stone inkstones produced in Guozhou also had a good reputation in Chang’an. Since people demanded higher-quality inkstones, stones found in Guozhou featuring fine and smooth textures were valued as the best material for the inkstones supplied to Chang’an.


The four inkstones excavated from the site of the West Market of the Tang Dynasty reveal how the inkstones were manufactured and used during the ancient dynasty. They bear witness to the prosperity of the Silk Road and record the cultural communication between the East and the West. Today, these inkstones have become a part of the culture of the Silk Road, constantly reminding us of the glory of ancient empires.

 

Jiang Jinshi is from the Graduate School of the Chinese National Academy of Arts.

?edited by REN GUANHONG

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