“He who has good ink is like a famous general who has a proud courier!” »
The origin of the ancient Chinese phrase repeated above (in the text: 有佳墨者，纞如名将之有良马也) is uncertain, but is often cited in Chinese texts dealing with traditional ink; It emphasizes the importance of a Chinese calligrapher or artist having quality ink.
In the Sinitic world (to simplify: China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam), ink (墨) [mò]) is perhaps the most important of the “four treasures of the scholar’s cabinet” (文房四宝). [wénfáng sìbǎo]) (the other three treasures are brush, inkstone, and paper).
Ink stone (研台 [yàntái]) in the form of a pond (Photo: 用心阁/Yongxinge, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
For a Chinese calligrapher, it is important to have ink that is well-crafted, durable, and produces flawless black. One of the characteristics of traditional Chinese ink is that it comes in the form of solid sticks of various sizes, often rectangular parallelepipeds, and usually decorated with engravings or socks. . There is also ready-to-use liquid India ink (called 墨汁). [mòzhī]literally “ink water”) is sold in small plastic bottles, but the ink stick remains the preferred choice of any calligrapher worth his salt.
Ready-to-use liquid ink (Photo: Ronggy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
China’s most famous ink is handmade in Huizhou District, Anhui Province. This ink is simply called “Huizhou ink” (徽墨 [huīmò]). But Indian ink was also produced in other parts of the Middle Kingdom.
Ink sticks from Huizhou placed side by side creating two scenes (Photo: Author Unknown, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Chinese ink is carbon ink, that is, an ink made of vegetable-derived black pigment (soot for Chinese ink) and a binder. To these two main components, Chinese ink manufacturers add various other ingredients. In particular, they add camphor from Borneo (borneol, 冰片 [bīngpiàn]), an insect repellent that will protect the paper on which the calligraphy is written against insects. We also use different products with aromatic properties, because raw ink has an unpleasant smell. Ink composition varies from manufacturer to manufacturer.
The pigment used in China is traditionally pine wood (松烟 [sōngyān]) (its roots or branches are old candlesticks, as they contain more oil), but the scarcity of candles led to the exploration and use of other raw materials, especially tung oil (桐油). [tóngyóu]), “light yellow oil obtained by pressing the oily seeds of two species of trees Varnish (V. fordii and V. Montana)… comes from Southern China” (see the Wikipedia article on tung oil here). Other oils or fats (lard) and soot-producing plants can also be used. (The fuel used to make soot in the video below is tung oil.)
Fuel is placed at the bottom of the container to collect the smoke. The fuel is ignited and the soot rising during combustion is collected in a hollow container placed above the combustion vessel. The resulting soot is carefully cleaned (by filtration or filtration) and recovered. It should have a powder consistency. This process is perfectly described in the video below. The best masters keep the smoke for a year before using it.
Making candle smoke (Illustration from Tiangong kaiwu (《天工开物》, an agricultural and technical encyclopedia compiled by Song Yingxing in the 17th century)) (Photo: Song Yingxing 1587-1666 AD, Public Domain, viaski)
It is then mixed with a soot binder. The binder used in China is lipidic in nature: it is gelatin made from bovine skin and bones, it comes in solid form, in the form of flakes or scraps, and must be heated to liquefy, and together with other ingredients, obtain a fairly viscous paste. It is important to thoroughly mix all the ingredients and tap the ink stick on a wooden block for a long time using a mallet to remove any air bubbles that may cause the ink stick to explode during drying.
The ink paste is placed in the mold and strongly compressed before being ejected from the mold. A stick with an elastic texture is obtained. This rod is deburred by hand (the burrs are made by pressing) and left to dry for a year. The sticks should be turned daily. The decoration of the sticks is formed in the mold. Ink masters make and engrave the wooden molds themselves.
To use solid ink, pour some water into the bottom of the ink stone and “grind” the ink by rubbing one end of the stick firmly against the bottom of the ink stone until you get the right consistency. Then wet the tip of the brush to write or paint.
Today, ink is hardly used except in calligraphers, and its production has declined dramatically, but great ink sticks can make great gifts and are collected by collectors.
The following video shows the traditional method of making Indian ink:
If you are interested in the subject of ancient inks, I recommend reading the excellent monograph Black Inks in the Middle Ages (up to 1600) By Monique Zerdoun Bat-Yehouda, published by CNRS publications in 1983. This monograph is available on Persée, click the button below to access it.