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An old Chinese inkstick made in the form of lotus leaves and flowers.
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Inksticks (Chinese : Loudspeaker.svg ; or ink cakes are a type of solid ink Chinese ink used traditionally in several East Asian cultures for calligraphy and brush painting. Inksticks are made mainly of soot and animal glue, sometimes with incense or medicinal scents added. To make ink, the inkstick is ground against an inkstone with a small quantity of water to produce a dark liquid which is then applied with an ink brush. Artists and calligraphers may vary the concentration of the resulting ink according to their preferences by reducing or increasing the intensity and duration of ink grinding.


Along with the inkstone, ink brush, and paper, the inkstick is considered one of the Four Treasures of the Study of classical Chinese literary culture.


Commemorative Chinese inksticks for collectors. Huizhouhukaiwenmo.jpg
Commemorative Chinese inksticks for collectors.

The earliest artifacts of Chinese inks can be dated back to 12th century BC[ citation needed ], with charred materials, plant dyes, and animal-based inks being occasionally used, mineral inks being most common. Mineral inks based on materials such as graphite were ground with water and applied with brushes. The mineral origins of Chinese inks were discussed by the Eastern Han dynasty scholar Xu Shen (許慎, 58 – c. 147). In his Shuowen Jiezi, he wrote "Ink, whose semantic component is 'earth', is black." (墨,從土,黑也), indicating that the character for "ink" () is composed of the characters for "black" () and "soil" (), due to the earthly origins of the dark mineral used in its production.

Colored inksticks, usually used as accents in Chinese painting. Boite de batons d'encre de Chine en couleur.jpg
Colored inksticks, usually used as accents in Chinese painting.

The transition from graphite inks to soot and charred inks occurred prior to the Shang dynasty. From studies of ink traces in artifacts of various dynasties, it is believed the inks used in the Zhou dynasty are quite similar to those used in the Han dynasty. However, these early inks, up to the Qin dynasty, were likely stored in liquid or powdered forms that have not been well preserved and thus their existence and constitution can only be studied from painted objects and artifacts. [1] Physical proof for these first "modern" Chinese soot and animal glue inks were found in archaeological excavations of tombs dated to the end of the Warring States period around 256 BC. This ink was formed by manual labor into pellets which were ground into ink on top of a flat inkstone using a smaller stone pestle. Many pellet-type inks and grinding implements have been found in Han dynasty tombs, with large ingot-type inks appearing in the late Eastern Han. These latter inks have physical markings which indicate that kneading was used in their production. [1]

One of the first literary records of inkstick production in Japan is from qimin yaoshu (齊民要術) [2] written during the Northern Wei dynasty. Elaboration of the techniques, technical requirements, and ingredients were also noted in scroll ten of yunlu manchao (雲麓漫鈔) [3] and the "ink" chapter of tiangong kaiwu (天工開物), the notable Ming dynasty encyclopedia by Song Yingxing (宋應星). [4]


Image from the 17th-century technical document Tiangong Kaiwu (
Tian Gong Kai Wu ) detailing how pine is burned in a furnace at one end and its soot collected at the other. Song Yan Zhi Mo Fa .jpg
Image from the 17th-century technical document Tiangong Kaiwu (天工開物) detailing how pine is burned in a furnace at one end and its soot collected at the other.

In general, inksticks are made of soot and animal glue, with other ingredients occasionally added as preservatives or for aesthetics:

The ingredients are mixed together in precise proportions into a dough and then kneaded until the dough is smooth and even. The dough is then cut and pressed into a mold and slowly dried. Badly made inksticks will crack or craze due to inadequate kneading, imprecise soot to glue ratio, or uneven drying. [6]

The most common shape for inksticks is rectangular/cuboid though other shapes are sometimes used. Inksticks often have various inscriptions and images incorporated into their design, such as indications of the maker or the type of inkstick, poetry, or an artistic image.

A good inkstick is said to be as hard as stone, with a texture like a rhino, and black like lacquer (堅如石,紋如犀,黑如漆). The grinding surface of a quality inkstick should in reflected light have a sheen that is blueish-purple, black if not so good, and white if bad. The best inksticks make very little noise when grinding due to the fine soot used, which makes the grinding action very smooth, whereas a very loud or scratchy grinding noise indicates an ink of poor quality with a grainy soot. Likewise, a quality inkstick should not damage or scratch the inkstone.


There are many types of inksticks produced. An artist or calligrapher may use a specific ink for a special purpose or to create special effects.

An artist might commission a custom ink to suit his/her needs. Medical ink is produced by mixing standard ink with herbal medicines, and can be ground and taken internally. Some inks are made in highly decorative and odd shapes for collectors rather than actual use.

Within each type of ink there are many variations regarding additional ingredients and fineness of the soot. An artist selects the best type of ink suited to their needs depending on discipline, paper type, and so on.

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Chinese art Visual art that originated in or is practiced in China or by Chinese artists

Chinese art is visual art that, whether ancient or modern, originated in or is practiced in China or by Chinese artists. The Chinese art in the Republic of China (Taiwan) and that of overseas Chinese can also be considered part of Chinese art where it is based in or draws on Chinese heritage and Chinese culture. Early "Stone Age art" dates back to 10,000 BC, mostly consisting of simple pottery and sculptures. After this early period Chinese art, like Chinese history, is typically classified by the succession of ruling dynasties of Chinese emperors, most of which lasted several hundred years.

Ink wash painting

Ink wash painting is a type of East Asian brush painting that uses the same black ink used in East Asian calligraphy in different concentrations. Emerging in Tang dynasty China (618–907), it overturned earlier, more realistic techniques. It is typically monochrome, using only shades of black, with a great emphasis on virtuoso brushwork and conveying the perceived "spirit" or "essence" of a subject over the direct imitation. It flourished from the Song dynasty in China (960–1279) onwards, as well as in Japan after it was introduced by Zen Buddhist monks in the 14th century. Somewhat later, it became important in Korean painting.

Chinese painting Artistic tradition

Chinese painting is one of the oldest continuous artistic traditions in the world. Painting in the traditional style is known today in Chinese as guó huà, meaning "national painting" or "native painting", as opposed to Western styles of art which became popular in China in the 20th century. It is also called danqing. Traditional painting involves essentially the same techniques as calligraphy and is done with a brush dipped in black ink or coloured pigments; oils are not used. As with calligraphy, the most popular materials on which paintings are made are paper and silk. The finished work can be mounted on scrolls, such as hanging scrolls or handscrolls. Traditional painting can also be done on album sheets, walls, lacquerware, folding screens, and other media.

Ink brush Calligraphic tool

Ink brushes are used in Chinese calligraphy as well as in Japanese and Korean calligraphy which both have roots in Chinese calligraphy. They are also used in Chinese painting and other brush painting styles. The ink brush was invented in China around 300 B.C. Together with the inkstone, inkstick and Xuan paper, these four writing implements form the Four Treasures of the Study.

Chinese calligraphy

Chinese calligraphy is the writing of Chinese characters as an art form, combining purely visual art and interpretation of the literary meaning. This type of expression has been widely practiced in China and has been generally held in high esteem across East Asia. Calligraphy is considered as one of the four most-sought skills and hobbies of ancient Chinese literati, along with playing stringed musical instruments, the board game "Go", and painting. There are some general standardizations of the various styles of calligraphy in this tradition. Chinese calligraphy and ink and wash painting are closely related: they are accomplished using similar tools and techniques, and have a long history of shared artistry. Distinguishing features of Chinese painting and calligraphy include an emphasis on motion charged with dynamic life. According to Stanley-Baker, "Calligraphy is sheer life experienced through energy in motion that is registered as traces on silk or paper, with time and rhythm in shifting space its main ingredients." Calligraphy has also led to the development of many forms of art in China, including seal carving, ornate paperweights, and inkstones.

Japanese calligraphy

Japanese calligraphy also called shūji (習字) is a form of calligraphy, or artistic writing, of the Japanese language. For a long time, the most esteemed calligrapher in Japan had been Wang Xizhi, a Chinese calligrapher from the 4th century, but after the invention of Hiragana and Katakana, the Japanese unique syllabaries, the distinctive Japanese writing system developed and calligraphers produced styles intrinsic to Japan. The term shodō is of Chinese origin as it is widely used to describe the art of Chinese calligraphy during the medieval Tang dynasty.

Inkstone A stone mortar for the grinding and containment of ink

An inkstone is a stone mortar for the grinding and containment of ink.

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Nihonga are Japanese paintings from about 1900 onwards that have been made in accordance with traditional Japanese artistic conventions, techniques and materials. While based on traditions over a thousand years old, the term was coined in the Meiji period of Imperial Japan, to distinguish such works from Western-style paintings or Yōga (洋画).

Stone rubbing

Stone rubbing is the practice of creating an image of surface features of a stone on paper. The image records features such as natural textures, inscribed patterns or lettering. By rubbing hard rendering materials over the paper, pigment is deposited over protrusions and on edges; depressions remain unpigmented since the pliable paper moves away from the rendering material. Common rendering materials include rice paper, charcoal, wax, graphite or inksticks. Over time, the practice of stone rubbing can cause permanent damage to cultural monuments due to abrasion. For an artist, stone rubbings can become an entire body of creative work that is framed and displayed.

Four Treasures of the Study Instruments in East Asian calligraphy traditions

Four Treasures of the Study, Four Jewels of the Study or Four Friends of the Study is an expression used to denote the brush, ink, paper and ink stone used in Chinese and other East Asian calligraphic traditions. The name appears to originate in the time of the Southern and Northern Dynasties. Each of the Four Treasures of the Study is produced in some specific region of China. Some of these brands have been at the top of the field. Since the Song Dynasty, the "Four Treasures of the Study" have referred to Hubi, Huimo, Xuanzhi and Duanyan.

Tang dynasty painting

During the Tang dynasty, as a golden age in Chinese civilization, Chinese painting developed dramatically, both in subject matter and technique. The advancements in technique and style that characterized Tang painting had a lasting influence in the art of other countries, especially in East Asia and central Asia.

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Chinese art by medium and technique

Much traditional Chinese art was made for the imperial court, often to be then redistributed as gifts. As well as Chinese painting, sculpture and Chinese calligraphy, there are a great range of what may be called decorative or applied arts. Chinese fine art is distinguished from Chinese folk art, which differs in its style and purpose. This article gives an overview of the many different applied arts of China.

Water-dropper (calligraphy)

A water-dropper is a small device used in East Asian calligraphy as a container designed to hold a small amount of water. In order to make ink a few drops of water are dropped onto the surface of an inkstone. By grinding an inkstick into this water on the inkstone, particles come off and mix with the water, forming ink.

Chinese pigments are the traditional medium to execute traditional Chinese brush paintings, besides ink. Chinese pigments is similar to Western gouache paint in that it contains more glue than watercolours, but more so than gouache. The high glue content makes the pigment bind better to Chinese paper and silk as well as enabling works of art to survive the wet-mounting process of Chinese hanging scroll mountings without smudging or bleeding.

<i>Suzuri-bako</i> Type of Japanese writing implement box

Suzuri-bako are a type of Japanese writing box. The boxes are traditionally made of lacquered wood and are used to hold writing implements. Historically, the boxes were associated with calligraphy, and as such they were made using high-quality materials designed to safeguard porcelain inkstones (suzuri) from harm.

Qing handicrafts

Handicrafts produced during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) were objects designed and hand-made by craftsmen. They were heavily ornate, incorporating Tibetan, Middle Eastern, Indian, and European techniques. The design or decorative aspect of the craft was as important as the crafting technique itself and Qing artisans were particular about the materials they used, such as jade (yu), stones, and wood. In their designs artisans drew heavily from a number of motifs, both mythical and natural. Certain areas in China became well-known for specific types of handicrafts; for example, Jingdezhen was known as the capital of porcelain. During the Qing era, Imperial Workshops built in Beijing brought together artisans and raw materials that were once only obtainable in disparate regions. This allowed for the combining of technologies and materials to produce new types of handicrafts. The tributary system also brought new sources for materials and artisans that were not from the production centers.

<i>Danqing</i> Form of traditional Chinese painting

Danqing, is a Chinese term for Chinese painting that refers to paintings painted on silk and Xuan paper with brush, color ink or Chinese pigments using natural plant, mineral, and metal pigments and pigment blends that are generally native to China.


  1. 1 2 蔡, 玫芬 (1994), "墨的發展史", 《墨》,文房四寶叢書之四, 彰化市: 彰化社會教育館
  2. 思勰, 賈 (386–534), 齊民要術 CS1 maint: date format (link)
  3. 趙, 彥衛 (1195), 雲麓漫鈔
  4. 宋, 應星 (1637), 天工開物
  5. Some Typical Ink Sticks, archived from the original on 1999-04-20
  6. Hui Ink Stick