New Book | The Social Life of Inkstones

Posted in books by Editor on June 14, 2018

I’m a year late, but in the event that it might still comes as news to some readers, from the University of Washington Press:

Dorothy Ko, The Social Life of Inkstones: Artisans and Scholars in Early Qing China (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017), 330 pages, ISBN: 9780295999180, $45.

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.

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.


Chinese Dynasties and Periods
Map of China

1  The Palace Workshops: The Emperor and His Servants
2  Yellow Hill Villages: The Stonecutters
3  Suzhou: The Crafts(wo)man
4  Beyond Suzhou: Gu Erniang the Super-Brand
5  Fuzhou: The Collectors
Epilogue: The Craft of Wen

Appendix 1: Inkstones Made by Gu Erniang Mentioned in Textual Sources Contemporary to Gu
Appendix 2: Inkstones Bearing Signature Marks of Gu Erniang in Major Museum Collections
Appendix 3: Members of the Fuzhou Circle
Appendix 4: Textual History of Lin Fuyun’s Inkstone Chronicle (Yanshi)
Appendix 5: Chinese Texts

Glossary of Chinese Characters



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