The Social Life of Inkstones

By Dorothy Ko

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. The stones have been connected with elite masculinity and the values of wen (culture, literature, civility) in China, Korea, and Japan for more than a millennium. However, they are virtually unknown in the West. Barnard historian and Columbia Weatherhead East Asian Institute scholar Dorothy Ko explores the hidden history and cultural significance of the inkstone and places stonecutters and artisans at center stage, showing how collaboration between craftsmen and scholars created a new social order.