Ink Stones, the Fourth Treasure

Over the years numerous rules were developed and popularized in relation to the making of brushes, ink, paper and inkstones. The literature called these four items the “four treasures of the study” and many Chinese even today are taught to give attention to writing of characters in a way very unlike the status of penmanship in this rapidly increasingly technological world.

Considering the reverence traditionally educated Chinese scholars had for the brush and ink, their interest in the inkstone was even greater. It is an acquired taste like several other facets of Chinese culture. The ink stone, with water, is used to grind the ink stick into tiny particles to form liquid ink. The better the stone, the smaller and more consistent the particles will be and the denser the ink. These stones were selected with the greatest of care and were often decorated with elaborate symbols or literary phrases thought to encourage the scholar’s production of higher sentiments. 

Chinese ink stones are usually round in shape with either a concave or a flat grinding surface. It is also common to find a lid, which covers the stone, made of wood or of the same stone. Natural ink stones are made from slate, and imitation ink stones are ceramic. Inkstones are generally black or dark in color and do not draw the attention of the eye.  Their beauty oftentimes is not so much in how they look but in how they work together with the ink and the paper and brush to achieve a particular color or texture. Holding an antique inkstone, it is hard not to feel the power that emanated from the previous painter or scholar who possessed this stone.  For this reason, inkstones are avidly collected and treasured by Chinese and some foreigners. 

Testing an inkstone involves three steps of inspecting the grinding surface. The finer the surface, the finer and more consistent the quality of the ink will be. The next test involves the use of water. If the tooth is fine and pointed in one direction, a small amount of water placed on the (clean) grinding surface will appear to sink immediately just below the surface, but will not appear dry. The final test is to check the flatness and smoothness of the grinding surface. Visual inspection and touching the surface with the fingers or tongue should show a very smooth and flat surface.