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78 color illus., 27 b&w illus., 3 maps, 10 tables
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The Social Life of Inkstones

Artisans and Scholars in Early Qing China

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

The Social Life of Inkstones explores the hidden history and cultural significance of the inkstone and puts the stonecutters and artisans on center stage.

About the Author

Dorothy Ko is professor of history at Barnard College. She is author of Cinderella's Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding and coeditor of The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory.


"A template for the successful marriage of material culture and intellectual history. . . . Embracing the entanglement of production, consumption, and use, the author expertly unearths the ambient voices in China's knowledge cultures often subdued by historical accounts: women, labourers and artisans. . . . [The Social Life of Inkstones] brings to light the value and knowledge of an artefact which has, until now, been hidden in plain sight."—Dagmar Schäfer, Monumenta Serica

"This is in almost every sense an excellent book. . . . The University of Washington Press has produced a fascinating contribution to the study of the art and aesthetics of writing in China, and to the cultural history of the Qing."—Simon Wickhamsmith, New Books Asia

"The Social Life of Inkstones lays a solid and fascinating foundation for scholars in a variety of fields to engage with material objects in order to take on the larger issues of the dramatic changes to knowledge, craft, and culture that occurred in Ming and Qing China."—China Review International: A Journal of Reviews of Scholarly Literature in Chinese Studies

"Impressive . . . Ko's book positions inkstones, their makers, and collectors, in the socio-political context of the early Qing without ever losing sight of her aim: to dwell with the often-illiterate miners and artisans who drew on deeply embedded rituals, experience and local knowledge in their production of exquisite objects. . . . For those interested in material cul-ture histories, Chinese art history or Chinese culture more broadly, this is a must-read."—Bulletin of the School of Asian and African Studies

"Advocate[s] for the unsung craftspeople of China, effectively giving them voice and visibility. . . . Beautifully and informatively illustrated, this thoughtful study is a model of scholarship."—Art Bulletin

"Enchanting . . . thoroughly researched, lucidly written, and beautifully illustrated. [Ko] guides us through a long and winding journey from prospectors and quarrymen deep in the mountains of Manchuria and Guangdong to carvers and customers in the alleys of Suzhou and Fuzhou, not to mention imperial patrons and bondservant designers behind the high walls of the Forbidden City. . . . Meticulously worked like the best stone from the old pit, it surely will be bought, read, discussed, envied, and remembered by the students of generations to come."—Journal of Chinese History

"The Social Life of Inkstones is likely to captivate the reader by conjuring a material world in which the inkstone comes into being and acts within the productive conduits constituted by stoneworkers and carvers as well as in the social networks of collectors."—Journal of Asian Studies

"Eloquently written and beautifully produced."—Material Culture

"Ko's book, in its reach and ambition, manages to make inkstones diagnostic of, among other things, "the state of politics, art, and manufacture" and "contend-ing knowledge cultures, entanglements between words and things, as well as sensitivities about gender and embodied skills.""—Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies

"For those interested in material culture histories, Chinese art history or Chinese culture more broadly, this is a must-read."—Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies


"A magical text. I have little doubt that The Social Life of Inkstones will become not only a point of reference but also a book that readers simply love."—Jonathan Hay, author of Sensuous Surfaces: The Decorative Object in Early Modern China

"Ko fires the imagination in her examination of the inkstone in its full richness, both as a writing tool and a sculptural work of art in early Qing dynasty society. These objects tell us complex stories about artistic competition, gendered values, and the many roles of craft in eighteenth-century China."—Foong Ping, author of The Efficacious Landscape: On the Authorities of Painting at the Northern Song Court

"A master of her trade, Ko draws on artifacts and texts to unfurl Qing material, intellectual, and social life. She enlivens a world in which inkstones constituted hidden treasures and constant companions for daily use. Guiding us into the dark pits and workshops, the collector's studio and imperial halls, Ko presents a fine example of how gender, regional studies, and the history of technology should be combined. A feast for any historian of material cultures, the arts, and crafts."—Dagmar Schäfer, author of The Crafting of the Ten Thousand Things: Knowledge and Technology in Seventeenth-Century China

University of Washington Press

9780295999180 : the-social-life-of-inkstones-ko
336 Pages
$45.00 USD
9780295749174 : the-social-life-of-inkstones-ko
Paperback / softback
336 Pages
$35.00 USD

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