An inkstone, a piece of polished stone no bigger than an outstretched hand, is an instrument for grinding ink, an object of art, a token of exchange between friends or sovereign states, and a surface on which texts and images are carved. As such, the inkstone has been entangled with elite masculinity and the values of wen (culture, literature, civility) in China, Korea, and Japan for more than a millennium. However, for such a ubiquitous object in East Asia, it is virtually unknown in the Western world.
Examining imperial workshops in the Forbidden City, the Duan quarries in Guangdong, the commercial workshops in Suzhou, and collectors' homes in Fujian, The Social Life of Inkstones traces inkstones between court and society and shows how collaboration between craftsmen and scholars created a new social order in which the traditional hierarchy of "head over hand" no longer predominated. Dorothy Ko also highlights the craftswoman Gu Erniang, through whose work the artistry of inkstone-making achieved unprecedented refinement between the 1680s and 1730s.
The Social Life of Inkstones explores the hidden history and cultural significance of the inkstone and puts the stonecutters and artisans on center stage.
Dorothy Ko is professor of history at Barnard College. She is the author of Cinderella's Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding and coeditor of The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory.
"A magical text. I have little doubt that The Social Life of Inkstones will become not only a point of reference, but also a book that readers simply love."
-Jonathan Hay, author of Sensuous Surfaces: The Decorative Object in Early Modern China
"Ko fires the imagination in her examination of the inkstone in its full richness, both as a writing tool and a sculptural work of art in early Qing dynasty society. These objects tell us complex stories about artistic competition, gendered values, and the many roles of craft in eighteenth-century China."
-Foong Ping, author of The Efficacious Landscape: On the Authorities of Painting at the Northern Song Court
"A master of her trade, Ko draws on artifacts and texts to unfurl Qing material, intellectual, and social life. She enlivens a world in which inkstones constituted hidden treasures and constant companions for daily use. Guiding us into the dark pits and workshops, the collector's studio and imperial halls, Ko presents a fine example of how gender, regional studies, and the history of technology should be combined. A feast for any historian of material cultures, the arts, and crafts."
-Dagmar Schäfer, author of The Crafting of the Ten Thousand Things: Knowledge and Technology in Seventeenth-Century China