Tuan Inkstone with Clouds and Dragons and 99 Columns

Tags: Ming dynasty | National Palace Museum | stone


Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)
Length: 14.2 cm, width: 8.2 cm, height: 4.2 cm 
This inkstone is carved from a single piece of Tuan River stone with dense inclusions, often referred to as eyes, found on the reverse side. The color of the stone itself is greyish-black, and the eyes, oval in shape, are a yellowish-green with brownish-yellow points in the center resembling the pupils. The top of the stone on the reverse side is slightly damaged, and the section used for grinding the ink is carved with ninety-nine columns each containing an eye inclusion. The ink well is carved with a cloud-and-dragon design, with one giant dragon leading nine baby dragons, an allusion to the belief that the dragon bestows children. The four sides of the inkstone are decorated with geometric decoration. In addition, the right side has an inscription in Chinese characters in standard script that reads, “Sung Dynasty Tuan River Dragon-Cloud Inkstone with 99 Columns”, and on the left side, also in standard script, is an inscription reading, “Kept in the Misty Rain Pavilion of the Summer Residence, Jehol.” Finally, on the topmost side, inscribed in small Chinese characters in standard script, is the inscription, “This stone was taken from old caverns six centuries past, and still retains its quality. The ink well is replete with auspicious clouds barely concealing a dragon leading nine young. On the reverse side are columns numbering ninety-nine, each having a mynah eye that seems as if it is looking at you. It fills me with wonder...” This inscription ends with four Chinese characters that attribute it to the Ch’ien-lung emperor (r. 1736-1795), and two of his seals. This poem can also be found in the emperor’s collection of poetry. The name of this inkstone was given by the emperor, directly alluding to the ninety-nine columns on the reverse side and the ten dragons gambolling around the clouds. The style and shape of the inkstone probably led the emperor to attribute it to the Sung dynasty (960-1279), and he ordered his craftsmen to inscribe this fact on the side. However, from the historical development of these inkstones, the geometric pattern, and the motif of the dragon bringing nine young dragons, it is probably not as old as the Sung dynasty, bearing more of a resemblance to the style current in the Ming. This type of stone was produced in the region around Chao-ching in Kwangtung province, known at the time as Tuan-chou, and inkstones made from Tuan River stone were already widely-renowned as far back as the T’ang dynasty (618-907), when there existed a vast array of names widely attributed to the various textures, appearances and inclusions on this type of stone. These names included “fire stroke”, “fish brain jelly”, “pig’s liver jelly”, “plantain leaf white”, “golden stars”, “jade band”, “golden thread”, “silver thread”, “eyes”, “moths”, and “partridge mottle”. This list continued to grow as a result of the scholar’s admiration for the qualities of the stone, and the sheer number of descriptions made matters rather confusing. The subtle variations in the appearances of the eye inclusions, however, meant that the majority of descriptions were devoted to them, with names such as “mynah eyes”, “parrot eyes”, “phoenix eyes”, and “ivory eyes”. They were also categorized according to the amount of vigor and life they were perceived to embody, and were accordingly divided onto “bright eyes”, “weeping eyes”, or “deadened eyes”. From the Sung dynasty, inkstone aficionados believed that, “bright eyes are preferable to weeping eyes, weeping eyes are better than deadened eyes, and deadened eyes are preferable to no eyes at all.” Emperor Kao-tsung of the Southern Sung is known to have written, “if the Tuan River inkstone has a band like purple jade, is lustrous and devoid of imperfections--the highest quality stone, is there any real need to put so much value on eye inclusions?” Despite this, the Ch’ien-lung emperor still praised Tuan River inkstones with “bright eye” inclusions, and ordered that this example be kept in the Misty Rain Pavilion in the Jehol summer residence in Manchuria, so that he could admire it during the summer months.

Text: Chi Juo-hsin

Text and images are provided by National Palace Museum