An Overview of Chinese Ink History

Ink: Central to the Literati Arts, and Chinese Civilization

Whenever we think of Chinese Arts, the images that leap to mind inevitably revolve around a very controlled use of line, and a deep glossy black. This black is a product of Chinese Ink, an artistic material that has survived largely unchanged for thousands of years. Ink has been not only the primary medium of literary visual artistic expression, but has also played a pivotal role in the formation and maintenance of the Chinese cultural complex. Without ink, it is impossible to tell what the historical landscape of China would look like. In other cultures, the keeping of records and maintenance of bureaucracy was often dependent on much more laborious processes, or on products that surrendered to the vagaries of time. It may be argued that the ease of preserving works executed with Chinese Ink has had an impact on the remarkable continuity of the Chinese culture across millennia.

The Emergence of Ink and its Manufacture in Chinese History

It is very difficult to determine when a recognizable Chinese Ink was first employed, or even when its large-scale manufacture began. This may be due in part to the relative simplicity of its early manufacture. As it consisted of burning pine and certain animal products in purpose-built kilns, early ink manufacture would not have left the type of evidence that other semi-industrial processes may have. Nevertheless, black pigments have been in use in China since the Neolithic period. It is also clear that ink production became central to the burgeoning bureaucracy of the Han Dynasty (漢朝/Han Chao/Han Ch’ao, 206 BCE – 220 CE). Records show that during the Han, court officials were given a ration of two ink sticks a month. From this time on, ink served as the lifeblood of the Chinese political culture just as much as it formed the basis of a diverse and vibrant artistic tradition.

Chinese Ink and its Usage in Art

While Ink as a material became vital to the continuation of Chinese Art and Civilization, its makers too developed their own notoriety. In the Tang Dynasty (唐朝/Tang Chao/Tang Ch’ao, 618-906 CE), the “Ink of Li” became known throughout China. This Ink was the work of Xi Chao (奚超/Hsi Ch’ao) and his son Xi Tinggui (奚庭珪/ Hsi T’ing Kuei), who were allowed to adopt the Imperial surname Li (李) upon Xi Tinggui’s appointment as Custodian of Ink. The Ink sticks produced by Xi Tinggui survived hundreds of years, and were memorialized in poetry.

In the Ming Dynasty (明朝/Ming Chao, Ming Ch’ao, 1368-1644 CE) Dong Qi Chang (Tung Ch’i Ch’ang/董其昌) remarked of the Ink of Cheng Jun Fang (程君房/Ch’eng Chün-fang) that in “a hundred years, there will be no more Jun Fang, but his Ink will live; in a thousand years there will be no more of his ink, but his name will remain”. While Ink Sticks have often been impressed with characters and motifs, especially dragons, it is clear that this substance has been prized due to its usefulness in sustaining the traditional knowledge and expression of China.