The Four Treasures: Inkstone / Suzuri, vi

Four Famous Stones

According to Wikipedia, and other internet sources, there are four main ink stones historically prized throughout China:

For serious calligraphers and painters, a good inkstone is as important as the quality of the ink. An inkstone will affect the quality and texture of the ink that is ground upon it. Four kinds of inkstones are especially noted in inkstone art history and are popularly known as the “Four Famous Inkstones.”

  • The first is Duanshi stone (Japanese: Tankei) (端石砚) from DuanxiGuangdong. Duan stone is a volcanic tuff, commonly of a purple to a purple-red color. There are various distinctive markings such as eyes that were traditionally valued in the stone. A green variety of the stone was mined in the Song period. Duan inkstones are carefully categorized by the mines (k’eng) from which the raw stone was excavated. Particular mines were open only for discrete periods in history. For example, the Mazukeng mine was originally opened in the Qianlong period (1736-1795), although reopened in modern times.
  • She stone (Japanese: Kyū) (歙砚) from She CountyAnhui. This stone is a variety of slate and like Duan stone is categorized by the various mines from which the stone was obtained historically. It is a black color and displays a variety of celebrated gold-like markings. These inkstones likewise date from the late Tang period.
  • Of great rarity is Tao River stone (洮河砚) from South Gansu. This stone is no longer found today and was gathered from a river bottom in the Song period. The stone is crystalline and like jade. The stone bears distinct markings such as bands of varying shades. This stone can be easily confused with Duan stone of the green variety, but can be distinguished by a careful observation of its crystalline nature.
  • Chengni ceramic stone (澄泥砚) is a ceramic-manufactured inkstone. This process was begun in the Tang period and is said to have originated in LuoyangHenan.

She Ink Stones

In particular, the She ink stone has long been prized for its quality.

The history of inkstone goes back to over 5,000 years ago. There is a lot of archeological evidence that Chinese used inkstone for grinding ink. There was a stone inkstone found in a 5,000-year-old archeological site in Jiazhai of Shanxi Province.

As one of the essential tool of ink brush painting, She inkstone, produced in Anhui Province in East China, is one of the most sought collector’s item among the literati and elite for thousands of years. It is one of the Four Great Inkstones in Chinese history.It is named after Shezhou Prefecture, Anhui Province, where it was first produced in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Many counties under the jurisdiction of this prefecture produce She ink slabs, but the best come from Longwei Mountain in Wuyuan County. Sometimes She ink slabs are referred to as Longwei inkstones.

She inkstone is made of gray, light green, or black rare slate with markings, and the stone appears in layers and is hard. She inkstone has three features: quick forming of ink, no harm done to the brush, and preserving wetness of ink.

She inkstone has a special artistic style with different markings resulting from geological changes with passage of time. Typical markings are Gold Star, Gold Star Patch, Gold Line, Silver Star, Silver Line, Cherry Blossom Gold Star, and Small Water Wave. More rare ones are Eyebrows, Jade Belt, Jade Belt with Gold Star, Big Water Wave, Fish Egg, Dates Kernel Eyebrows, Jade Patch, and so on.

My Suzuri

The inkstone I am writing about today is my favorite. I purchased it a number of years ago from Japan, but it is Chinese in origin.  It is a very large, very heavy stone, encased in a custom rosewood box. The box measures 6 3/4 x 9 7/8 inches (17 x 25 cm) and weighs 1 lb 10.2 oz (745 g), while the stone measures 5 3/8 x 9 inches (13.65 x 22.86 cm) and weighs 4 lbs. 10.4 oz (2.1 kg). It is my understanding that this is a She inkstone, and over 70 years old. Acorn Planet has a lot of information about Chinese ink stones – unfortunately, they no longer sell them.

Custom Box for Suzuri

Custom Made Suzuri Box

Boxes are custom made for each high quality suzuri, to ensure protection as well as a fit unique to the shape of each stone. Above, you can see the box for this stone. It is solid and heavy, made of rosewood. The wood is smoothly polished. The bottom half of the box holds the suzuri securely. Underneath, small feet provide support. Altogether, the box is a work of art in itself.

Inside Bottom of the Box

Underside of Box Bottom - Notice the Feet in Each Corner

My stone itself is a beautiful dark grey color, with a single inclusion or marking, which is skillfully centered in the middle of the carvings, like the moon amongst tree branches on a foggy night. The well is deep, and the slope onto the flat surface is evenly carved. There are no rough spots on this stone. Touching the stone, it is cool. The sound of the stone, when tapped, is clear and crisp. Breathing onto the stone, the moisture from one’s breath sits on the surface, and slowly – very slowly – evaporates or is absorbed by the stone, which shows the correct porosity for hand-ground ink.  Tilting the stone in sunlight shows fine sparkles, indicating the presence of pyrites.

My Best Suzuri

Ink ground on this stone is very fine, and quickly ground, and rests easily on the surface with little need to replenish the water.  I use my finest Japanese ink sticks on this stone – to use ones of dubious quality would possibly ruin its smooth surface if there were coarse grains within the ink stick.  To pour liquid ink onto it would be sacrilege!

Suzuri with Lid

Suzuri with Lid

High quality stones, according to some web sources, are well-carved, but without excessive design. Lesser quality stones may be more elaborately carved to increase their value. Various inclusions, such as color streaks or the dots, as seen on this stone, are rare and add to the value of the stone. This stone has a narrow band of elaborate carving at the top, of cherry blossoms, bamboo, and birds. Its style is very Chinese, from what I can tell; Japanese stones have different carving characteristics.

Carving Detail

Carving Detail, Close Up

Carving Detail

Inclusion or Marking

There is no way to describe the intense pleasure which comes from using a fine inkstone – it is an experience unique to itself.  Any sumi artist or calligrapher will know what I mean.  I am very fortunate to be able to enjoy such a wonderful stone.


3 thoughts on “The Four Treasures: Inkstone / Suzuri, vi

  1. andi

    Hello, I have been reading your blog entries concerning the art and pleasure of calligraphy. It is very refreshing to read such articles in English.

    While I was in Beijing a handful of years ago, I visited Rongbaozhai (荣宝斋) and purchased an ink stone along with several ink sticks and brushes. But due to my elementary Mandarin, I was unable to secure items such as a custom box for my ink stone. Would you please share where you were able to secure you box? It would be greatly appreciated.

  2. Naomi Post author

    Thank you for coming to visit here, and I am glad you enjoyed some of my postings.

    As far as the box for the suzuri above, it came with the stone itself. Many of the stones from China have come with boxes, but with the change in economics, it could be they are now only available for very expensive ones. Unfortunately, I cannot help you there. But a thought is if you can find a woodworker, you might be able to have a custom-fit box made. I don’t think rosewood is necessary, just a solid box to protect your stone. Japanese stones seem to come in presentation boxes of kiri wood (pawlonia).

  3. Ronnie Yap

    Hi, interesting write you have there. Looking at the pics, the ‘moon’ marking on the inkstone is a well known feature in inkstone but I doubt that this is a She inkstone but rather a Duan inkstone. “Moon’ markings as you described are better known as ‘dragon eyes’ or ‘olive eyes’, and they are markings of Duan inkstone. Not to say that this inkstone is any less valuable, both Duan and She are known as the great four inkstones of China, dated back 1000 years ago. I would be very happy to have this piece as part of my collections.

    Also to the Andi, who enquire about wooden box container. It is not hard to make a case for your inkstone. I do a bit of carpentry work myself and what you need is to get hold of someone that does fine wood working or wood craft. Just ensure that the wood casing is a practical one as well as looking good. They should be resting snugly on the bottom wood cover for stability during grinding and close fitting when covered with the top, to minimize evaporation of ink when covered. This doesn’t mean you can left unused ink over night. Then again, as a collector, I do not grind on most of mine, only on very few.

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