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An old Chinese inkstick made in the form of lotus leaves and flowers.

Inksticks (Chinese: 墨 About this sound ; Japanese: 墨 Sumi; Korean: 먹 Meok) or Ink Cakes are a type of solid ink (India ink) used traditionally in several East Asian cultures for calligraphy and brush painting. Inksticks are made mainly of soot and animal glue, sometimes with incense or medicinal scents added. To make ink, the inkstick is ground against an inkstone with a small quantity of water to produce a dark liquid which is then applied with an ink brush. Artists and calligraphers may vary the thickness of the resulting ink according to their preferences by reducing or increasing the intensity and time of ink grinding.

Along with the inkstone, brush, and paper, the inkstick is considered one of the Four Treasures of the Study of classical Chinese literary culture.


Commemorative Chinese inksticks for collectors.

The earliest artifacts of Chinese inks can be dated back to 12th century BC[citation needed], with the use of charred materials, plant dyes, and animal-based inks being occasionally used, with mineral inks being most common. Mineral inks based on materials such as graphite were ground with water and applied with brushes. The mineral origins of Chinese inks were discussed by the Eastern Han dynasty scholar Xu Shen (許慎, 58 – c. 147). In his Shuowen Jiezi, he wrote "Ink, whose semantic component is 'earth', is black." (墨,從土、黑也), indicating that the character for "ink" (墨) is composed of the characters for "black" (黑) and "soil" (土), due to the earthly origins of the dark mineral used in its production.

Colored inksticks, usually used as accents in Chinese painting.

The transition from using graphite inks to soot and charred inks occurred prior to the Shang dynasty. From studies of ink traces from artifacts of various dynasties, it is believed the inks used in the Zhou dynasty are quite similar to those used in the Han dynasty. However, these early inks, up to the Qin dynasty, were likely stored in liquid or powdered forms that have not been well preserved and thus their existence and constitution can only be studied from painted objects and artifacts.[1] Physical proof for these first "modern" Chinese soot and animal glue inks were found in archaeological excavations from tombs dated to the end of the Warring States period around 256 BC. This ink was formed by manual labor into pellets which were ground into ink on top of a flat inkstone using a smaller stone pestle. Many pellet-type inks and grinding implements have been found in Han dynasty tombs with large ingot-type inks appearing in the late Eastern Han. These latter inks have physical markings which indicate that kneading was used in their production.[1]

One of the first literary records of inkstick production in Japan is from qimin yaoshu (齊民要術)[2] written during the Northern Wei dynasty. Elaboration of the techniques, technical requirements, and ingredients were also noted in scroll ten of yunlu manchao (雲麓漫鈔)[3] and the "ink" chapter of tiangong kaiwu (天工開物), the notable Ming dynasty encyclopedia by Song Yingxing (宋應星).[4]


Image from the 15th-century technical document Tiangong Kaiwu (天工開物) detailing how pine is burned in a furnace at one end and its soot collected at the other.

In general, inksticks are made with soot and animal glue, with other ingredients occasionally added as preservatives or for aesthetics:

The ingredients are mixed together in precise proportions into a dough and then kneaded until the dough is smooth and even. The dough is then cut and pressed into a mold and slowly dried. Badly made inksticks will crack or craze due to inadequate kneading, imprecise soot to glue ratio, or uneven drying.[6]

The most common shape for inksticks is rectangular/cuboid though other shapes are sometimes used. Inksticks would often have various inscriptions and images incorporated into their design, sometimes giving indication of who the maker is, poetry, the type of inkstick, and/or an artistic image.

A good inkstick is said to be as hard as stone with a texture like a rhino and black like lacquer (堅如石,紋如犀,黑如漆). The grinding surface when reflected with light should be of a blueish-purple sheen if good, black if not so good, and white if bad. The best inksticks make very little noise when grinding due to the fine soot used, which makes the grinding action very smooth whereas a very noisy or scratchy grinding noise indicates an ink of poor quality with a grainy soot. An inkstick should not damage or scratch the inkstone when grinding otherwise it is considered inferior.


There are many types of inksticks produced. An artist or calligrapher may use a specific ink for a special purpose or to create special effects.

  • Oil soot ink: made using the soot of burnt tung oil or various other oils. There is more glue in this type of ink than the other kinds so it does not spread as much. It gives a warm black color and is good as a general purpose painting and calligraphy ink.
  • Pine soot ink: made from the soot of pine wood. It has less glue and so spreads more than oil soot inks. It gives a blueish-black color and is good for calligraphy and gongbi painting.
  • Lacquer soot ink: made from the soot of dried raw lacquer. It has a shiny appearance and is most suitable for painting.
  • Charcoal ink: made using standard wood charcoal. It has the least amount of glue and so spreads on paper more than other inks. It is mainly used for freestyle painting and calligraphy.
  • Blueish ink (青墨): oil or pine soot that has been mixed with other ingredients to produce a subtle blueish-black ink. Mainly used for calligraphy.
  • Coloured ink: oil soot ink that has been blended with pigments to create a solid ink of color. Most popular is cinnabar ink which was reportedly used by Chinese emperors.
  • Medical ink: produced by mixing standard ink with herbal medicines which can be ground and taken internally.
  • Collectors ink: highly decorative and in odd shapes that are meant for collecting rather than for actual use in making ink.
  • Custom ink: ink that has been commissioned by an artist who may want a specific type of ink to suit their needs.

Within each type of ink there may be many variations regarding additional ingredients and fineness of the soot. An artist selects the best type of ink suited to their needs depending on discipline, what paper is used, and so on.


  1. ^ a b 蔡, 玫芬 (1994), "墨的發展史", 《墨》,文房四寶叢書之四, 彰化市: 彰化社會教育館
  2. ^ 思勰, 賈 (386-534 A.D. (N.Wei)), 齊民要術 Check date values in: |date= (help)
  3. ^ 趙, 彥衛 (~1195 A.D.(Song)), 雲麓漫鈔 Check date values in: |date= (help)
  4. ^ 宋, 應星 (1637 (Ming)), 天工開物 Check date values in: |date= (help)
  5. ^ Some Typical Ink Sticks, archived from the original on 1999-04-20
  6. ^ Hui Ink Stick

External links

  • Images and history of inkstick manufacturing (Chinese)
  • Inkstick resource (Chinese)
  • Scholarly work with citations on inksticks (Chinese)
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