Written Culture of Inkstick-Makers in China and Japan, 1300-1900

Written Culture of Inkstick-Makers in China and Japan, 1300-1900
Wilson Chan


Chinese and Japanese artisans, as discussed by Jacob Eyferth and Richard Rubinger, are commonly known as less literate compared to their European counterparts and refrained from utilising written texts. They did not transmit their artisanship with written texts, failed to produce written texts on their artisanship due to illiteracy and, if they ever produce any, did so only for administrative purposes.
By examining a range of written texts produced by artisans, this dissertation demonstrates that a written culture existed among inkstick-makers in China and Japan between 1300 and 1900. Inkstick-maker Shen Jisun 沈繼孫 (1322-1403) wrote a manual on his artisanship Collected Essentials for Inksticks (Mofa jiyao 墨法集要) to demonstrate his literacy to his friends and potential customers in the literati circles in Jiangnan region. In sixteen-century China, inkstick-makers Fang Yülu 方于魯 (1541-1608) and Cheng Junfang 程君房 (1541-ca. 1620) edited and published The Fang Family’s Inkstick Catalogue (Fangshi mopu 方氏墨譜; 1588) and The Cheng Family’s Inkstick Garden (Chengshi moyuan 程氏墨苑; 1605) respectively to establish the scientific knowledge of inksticks through the brush of contributing literati to the albums. Another inkstick-maker Pan Fangkai 潘方凱 (fl. early seventeenth century) acted as a publisher to establish a link between his products and those by famous inkstick-makers mentioned in books he reprinted. Collected Essentials for Inksticks acted as a link between Emperor Qianlong and artisans in the Qing court’s Imperial Inkstick Workshop in the eighteenth century for the knowledge on inksticks to be communicated between the two parties. The struggle of inkstick-makers at Kobaien in seventeenth-and-eighteenth-century Japan to learn of the Chinese artisanship showcases that written texts were one, and only one, of the factors in the transmission of scientific knowledge; repeated experimentation based on written texts built up the artisanal knowledge for the inkstick-maker to produce inksticks according to the written texts. Civil Service Examination participant Xie Songdai 謝崧岱 (1849-1898) invented liquid ink as he attempted to make the ideal implement for the examination; although written texts, e.g. Collected Essentials for Inksticks, were his major sources of knowledge, the gap between scientific knowledge from written texts and artisanal practice was only bridged by experimentation, which led to his innovation.
This dissertation demonstrates that a new genre of artisans emerged in China in the fourteenth century and later in Japan in the seventeenth century. Coming from a literati background, these artisans were highly literate and their literacy created a specific value for written texts that encouraged them to produce written texts which were aimed at defeating the discourse promoted by literati without the practical knowledge of making inksticks. These artisans also enjoyed the privilege of accessing written texts for a translocal and transtemporal transmission of scientific knowledge––however, the transformation of the knowledge into their embodied knowledge of artisanship was not possible without experimentation.


Wilson Chan

Defended in


PhD defended at

School of Chinese, University of Hong Kong




East Asia


Art and Culture