Ink, one of the Four Treasures

The weakest ink is mightier than the strongest memory.   (Chinese proverb)

Brushes and paper are the two treasures most often considered by those of us obsessed by Chinese Brush Painting (CBP). Ink stones and ink, the remaining two, seldom garner much attention, at least not on the same scale as brushes and paper.


Do I grind or pour, that is the question…

We spend time and money tracking down paper: we hunt for it in foreign markets while traveling, we purchase much more than we would ever use in order to have some for exchange with other like-minded scavengers, and we hoard it in our cupboards once we have a stash.

As for brushes, in reality we could manage with two or three—a large soft orchid brush, a fine detail brush, and a hake for applying washes efficiently. But the truth of the matter is that we succumb to the allure of just about every kind of painting instrument we see. Our brush pots, drying racks, and woven fiber rolls hold countless varieties—goat, sheep, wolf, badger, horse tail, squirrel, rat whisker, even some fashioned of human hairs. Then there are those of mixed hairs, some we have hacked up deliberately to create a ‘scruffy’, and even some we’ve used so long only thin wisps remain. All have their place in our hearts as ‘treasures’.

But ink? Other than choosing to use purchased bottled ink or grind our own from an ink stick, most CBP enthusiasts give ink little thought. I find bottled ink gets me to task sooner than taking time to grind. I know that the more traditional grinding serves a purpose: you clear your mind and properly ‘prepare’ for the painting session ahead. And if you select ink sticks with some discretion you can prepare a ‘stickier’, DARKER ink than you’ll get from a bottle. (Well, except when you pour bottled ink on a hot day and considerable liquid evaporates before the end of your session; that un-intended action can also lead to ‘sticky’ ink in the dish.)

THE book on Ink has been written!

There are times when a good work of non-fiction can outweigh the intrigue of fiction. The Social Life of Ink, culture, wonder, and our relationship with the written word by Canadian English professor Ted Bishop passes that bar and then some. His 2014 opus has been described as ‘part travel narrative, part hidden history, part cultural exploration’ and ‘fascinating, with writing as tactile and fluid as ink rolling across rice paper’.


As a retired wordsmith, I indeed found every single chapter compelling and entertaining. As an enthusiast of CBP, I could hardly put the book down once I got into Part II The Art of Ink. Bishop outdid himself in researching the history of ink-making in China. He visited factories, travelled to the famed Yellow Mountain region where the best inks have been made for centuries, and even tried learning to ‘write’ a few Chinese characters.

Much to absorb

The best parts of the chapter on ink for me, aside from details of his factory visits, were the insights into ink additives and all the old secret recipes and the poems. One excerpt:

“Traditionally, credit for the invention of ink goes to the third-century calligrapher Wei Ten. In his recipe, after you’ve strained your soot and dissolved your glue in the juice of the chin tree, you add five egg whites, one ounce of crushed pearl, and the same amount of must, after they’ve been separately treated and well strained.”

Bishop’s research uncovered a range of ink additives to improve color, consistency and aroma, such as peony rind, pig or carp galls, pearls, pomegranate, and sandalwood. He notes over 1100 possible ingredients!!! I will never sit at my art table with quite the same non-reverent attitude again.

And then there were Bishop’s poetic discoveries. Beginning with Xue Tao, a Tang dynasty poetess (c. 770-832) the author cites relevant verse (translations) to enhance his cultural and social history.

‘Old pine burned forming light charcoal flowers,

The exquisite ink-making skills of brother Li

How describe the deep, cool shining color?

Darker than the fair lady’s hair, a crow flying in winter.’


And another, this from a poet called Chang Yu:


‘Burning orchid-lamps, we invited the moon to join us;

drinking wine, we plucked the strings of our lute.

Who would have thought that for another evening of joy

we would have to wait for thousands of years!

Now your wandering spirit is far away in darkness,

and only cold words are left, in your own hand.

The dusty ink still gives off a light fragrance,

the paper is torn, but still has its lustre.


And from Li Po (aka Li Bai), China’s equivalent of our William Shakespeare, part of one of his poetic tributes to ink:


Soot made of Shang-tang Mountain green pine,

Mixed with cinnabar powder of I-ching,

And orchid oil and musk, a precious ink is made,

Its glaze shines so luxuriously that one is afraid to use.


The servant boy with two coiffures brought it in,

Wrapped in a brocade sack, carefully on his arm;

With this gift from you I am going at once to the Orchid Pavilion.

When inspiration comes upon me, I shall write happily with my brush and your ink.’


I must find this book for my shelf of favorite bedside reading.

I should really put aside the bottle and grind my own ink, now that I am aware of just some of its reasons for being so treasured.

I will sew a brocade sack for my stick and my stone, to carry them as they should be carried.





This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, ink. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Ink, one of the Four Treasures

  1. Lou Heron says:

    I’m speechless! ummm…WOW…and ummmm Yes to grind or not to grind ….

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