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The Social Life of Inkstones (Review)

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Dorothy Ko. 2017.
The Social Life of Inkstones: Artisans and Scholars in Early Qing China
Seattle: University of Washington Press
ISBN 9780295999180

When Manchu forces from the northeast conquered the Ming Empire in 1644, they, having had a script for writing their own language for less than 50 years, suddenly became the rulers of a culture whose written legacy stretched back more than 2000 years. The practical concerns of government, as the Empire developed and its need for administrative efficiency and cultural power grew, meant that the rulers felt the need to have access to, and a benign control over, the material and intellectual expression of their people.

Dorothy Ko's engrossing new book, while clearly showing how ‘the Qing leaders expressed their interests in artistry and technology by being attentive to the making of each individual product’ (p. 11; italics in the original), reveals more importantly the social import of creating, receiving and appreciating the inkstone, in which rested, ready for use, the vital fluid of administration and literary culture. The ‘social life’ of the inkstone indeed, is its cultural capital: it is noticeable how little of Ko's book is actually devoted to its use in the actual process of writing, and how central are its aesthetic and tactile qualities.

During the first 150 years, during the reigns of the Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong Emperors, the Palace workshops were the tastemakers and focal points of inkstone appreciation, and it was against the subtle artistry and technical design of the workshops' products that the carving of inkstones was judged, and collections assembled. Ko begins her book with an extensive and intricate tour of the workshops through the first three imperial reigns, including an account of the master-craftsman and designer Liu Yuan. This material on how the Empire contributed to the aestheticization of the inkstone, its reframing as an objet d'art, elegantly contextualizes the remainder of the book. Ko's analysis of Liu's contribution to what she suggests as being a secondary reframing, of the dragon as a traditional symbol of imperial power as a standard indicator of the power of the Qing, is one of the book's art historical highlights.

From the Imperial Palace, the book moves first to the Yellow Hill villages in Zhaoqing, Guangdong province, where the precious Duan stone were mined and carved. Perhaps this book is actually more about the Duan stone than about any product made from it, for it is the color and the weight and the luster of the stone which gives it the quality which rendered the inkstones so desirable to collectors. As with a sculptor of marble or wood, the importance to a carver of inkstones of sourcing just the right stone, of creatively envisioning its application, is vital to the refinement of the finished work, and Ko's treatment of the mines around Yellow Hill is exemplary in showing both how the physical landscape produced stones, and also how the stonecarvers themselves developed precision tools with which to extract and subsequently carve the stones.

The two chapters which concentrate on the carvers of inkstones emphasize the importance of skill even over gender. Gu Erniang, who functions as the central character of this story, was the leading carver of inkstones in her time, but also an entrepreneur and designer who, to use Ko's words, expertly promoted her own brand. Yet, while Gu's artistry and her brand became famous, the details of her life remain hidden. Ko clearly wants to explore the artisan as a biographical subject, as well as a cipher for his or her art, and yet like the subtle elements concealed (or restrained) within the carved inkstone often the individual is expressed through the voices of second-hand accounts, or art historical research. The character and historical development of Gu's brand, then, is an indication of how connoisseurship and cultural power worked in the Qing Empire during the 18th century, the subject of Ko's concluding chapter about the collectors of inkstones and their collections.

As a woman, Gu's gender seems to have been (or to have become) of little import in the light of her art. However, inkstone carving and inkstone appreciation remained masculine preserves, and while women could use inkstones to write, and to write poetry of great beauty, circles of collectors were limited to men. But, as the evidence of Ko's painstaking research shows, there were women who collected and appreciated inkstones for just the same reasons, and in just the same ways, as did the men with whom they lived. One of the principal qualities of Ko's work is in revealing the influence which women exercised from their ‘occluded’ position, and I feel that there is a sense in which their marginality, as with so much in the way in which Chinese aesthetics is studied and framed and repackaged, makes their influence – yet not, of course, the recognition accorded them in life – all the greater.

This is in almost every sense an excellent book. It is full of information and of historical and art historical analysis, and its illustrations – notwithstanding that the subject matter might not always be easy to photograph successfully – are frequent and clear. Physically weak readers should note however, that it is a very heavy book, due to the quality and weight of its paper and binding. That said, the University of Washington Press has produced a fascinating contribution to the study of the art and aesthetics of writing in China, and to the cultural history of the Qing. Dorothy Ko is a talented scholar, but she is also a most alluring writer, and I look forward to reading her other books.

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