Dorothy KoMay 18, 2017
The Social Life of Inkstones
Artisans and Scholars in Early Qing China
University of Washington Press 2017
Dorothy Ko's new book is a must-read. Troubling the hierarchy of head over hands and the propensity to denigrate craftsmen in Chinese history, The Social Life of Inkstones: Artisans and Scholars in Early Qing China (University of Washington Press, 2017) explores the place of inkstones in the early Qing political project in a story that places ink-grinding stones and their craftspersons at the center. Ko's book takes us to a series of places, in each case opening out into a beautifully written and careful analysis of text and material. We begin in the Imperial Workshops in the Forbidden City, for a peek into the imperial workshop system and the bondservants who were crucial to it. As Ko helps us to understand, that system is emblematic of a new Qing ruling style that can only be called materialist. Next, we move to the Duan quarries in Guangdong, where Ko explores the work and world of stonecutters and physical, literate, and visual knowledge-making therein. Next we join Ko in the commercial inkstone-carving workshops in Suzhou for a careful study of one of the central figures in the book and one who will be with us for the remainder of the story, Gu Erniang (fl. 1700-1722), one of the most accomplished inkstone makers of her day. The chapter takes us through the stages through which she practiced her crafts, from commissioning of the inkstone to carving (including attention to what she did not carve, including words), to understanding her signature marks. We move from here to follow Gu as a super-brand into the world of commercial inkstone-carving beyond Suzhou, and finally to collectors homes in Fujian. It is a masterful study that is equally sensitive to objects and texts as historical documents.