The story of ink stone started in 2012 when we were searching for stone craftsmanship in China. China has a long tradition of using stone in various elements of the building so we are hoping to find an inspirational artist who is passionate and know their craft well.

With cultural revolution in the 60s’ and the last 30 years of continuous rapid economic growth, most people have abandoned the handicrafts altogether and moved to more commercialised realm of mass production. Those carrying on do not have any descendant who is willing to embrace the trade to pass on the knowledge to.  This problem reverberates throughout at every industry whether it is arts, musics, architecture or crafts and it happens to all the levels from artists to craftsmen. Chinese Arts and crafts are dying.

Lost traditions

Traditional artists has become a rare sight aside from those performing on stage for large tour groups. In a large city like Shanghai or Beijing, we often see people move out of the traditional lanehouses into modern skyscrapers. In the countryside, the workers leaves their villages and prefer to work in the factories where they receive much better pay. Old customs are seen as backward life and traditional craft methods that can produce fine results are seen as slow and laborious processes. Workers rather scarify quality and opt for modern power tools than enduring the physical hardship.

When we did our research on stone works and carving, it was very difficult to find anything substantial to get down the root of the Chinese traditional arts and crafts. We started our journey at a quarry in xiamen in Fujian province where blocks of stone were excavated and brought out to the surface after a few millions years. Fujian is one of the areas in China that has a long tradition of stone production and carving so it would make sense to begin our trace there.



We were taken to this quarry by a local stone manufacturer. The particular quarry produce white granite. The stone started with workers extracting stone from each strata into approximately 1x1x2m cube. The size of the block is determined by the logistic process of craning the block up the edge of the quarry and trucking it down the perilous winding path of the mountain.



It is a dangerous job at the bottom of that pit. People often work unprotected with heavy machines and falling objects in a semi enclosed environment filled with dust, chemicals and explosives. Needless to say it is for a small amount of money.



The stone blocks from different quarries would end up in one of many factories like this. The blocks were uniformly cut into thin tiles and polished into flat mirror surface. This is quite a depressing scene for us to see as natural and beautiful material such as stone that was once a mountain people can admire very much like the Huangshan mountain has been transformed into soulless and lifeless slabs.



We then visited some of the factories that produce stone ornaments and sculptures in Hui’an, north of Xiamen. The village is renowned for tradition stone carving technique with a long history spanning over 1,600 years. Nowadays, small family workshops have turned into factories. Still, if you would like a good quality stone ornaments or statues, Hui’an is probably one of the first places on the list for skill carving and engraving to check out.



It was good to see the carving is still very much alive here. There are people carving tiles, crown columns, Chinese lions, you name it. There were some interesting design in the factory but mostly the workers were doing traditional Chinese emblems or neoclassical ornaments. Everyone was using power grinder of different sizes cutting on to a stencilled stone. So it is very much a production line rather than a artist workshop which is what you would expect to see coming to a factory. All the works were really well executed, but we were hoping to find more artistic approach to the process.



Ink Stone

While we were in Xiamen, we heard about a village called Zhaoqing (肇庆) in Guangzhou that still produce ink stones.  The Ink stone is a traditional objected used in calligraphy and painting as a plate to grind ink sticks which is then mixed with water to become liquid ink. There is a small reservoir to hold this liquid ink on the stone. Although the prionciple is the same, the size, material and design of ink stones come in various shapes and forms. The village we were visiting is specialise in making it out of Duan stone or a volcanic tuff.

The history of ink stone dated back 7000 years. It was used by artists, scholars and calligraphers so its aesthetic along with the practicality have been evolved over time.


We arranged with a shop selling the ink stones and they agreed to show us around their factory how these stones are made.

Upon arrival at the shop, we were amazed at the scale of the place. There are a couple of stories selling probably over a thousand kinds of ink stone. From the cheapest one of 30 quid to hundred thousand pounds. The price is not cheap for China but all of them are hand made so understandably it can be a little more pricy.

Some of Ink stones are made as a statement or for collection. This one below has intricate dragon patterns with three dimensional effect. It is about half a meter in size and would set you back some ten thousand pounds.


We were taken to the residential area at the back of the showroom. It is just like any typical housing development in China except a few signs that indicate the workshop has been set up here.

Walking around the corner we immediate saw a large pile of Duan stone stack up against the building.  It is hard to believe they would need this many stone as it would require a substantial time to carve one ink stone. Then again, this is China where they can summon a large amount of labour in no time.


The first process of making the ink stone is to go through each slab and work out the useable area – this is the area without blemish or  crack lines. Slab with many defects can get chiselled down to make 4-5 pieces while a good quality slab can be used whole.


After breaking the stone to smaller pieces, the carver will clean and exam the surface of each stone of how to work with each particular shape. They would also identify whether the feature such as lines and eye can be used to enhance their carving.


Then, the stone get broken down and cut into the basic shapes whether it is rectangle, rounded or customised shape. The carver would hand chiselled out the inkwell ready to be passed on to the next guy who does decorative carving.


This is the ink stone for everyday use doesn’t need to hold a large quantity of ink and more suitable for smaller brushes. These small size stones will be carved with simple relieve patterns around the border. The bigger more expensive one will have more elaborate patterns on.

Carver will select or create a design pattern to do about 10-20 pieces before changing to another pattern.


Each layer is carefully carved with hand chisel and hammer.


The are some basic ones that do not required to have any decorative pattern on. These will be filed to smooth and sealed with wax. The worker uses different shapes of whetstone to make sure all they reach all of the corner. These are labour intensive job but there is no other way of doing it to get the same result.


Stones are heated up on these industrial stoves and then rubbed with wax which can be seen on the right side of the stoves.




For larger more elaborate inkstone design, the stones are sent to another workshop downstairs.  The carvers here are more skilful and can begin to work on more elaborate three dimensional design. We saw a marginally better set up for these guys – at least they have their own desk.


Each carver is equipped with lamp and small fans. The fans are not there to keep them cool but to blow away the dust from the carving process. The room would get very dusty as the particles just filled up the air.


It is intriguing that they prefer to work in a darker environment with just a single light source. This, however,allow them to see the pattern better.



The tools that they use to crate these amazing patterns is nothing special, just small chisels and a block of wood for tapping.



These completed stones they left on the floor truly show how complex their carving work can be. Part of the stone is lifted off and has become a three dimensional sculpture as they added so many layers and use the under-carved technique. It is no where near sophisticated comparing to some of those we have seen in the showroom but they are still very impressive considering how many these guys have to churn out each week.



Once the carving process is done and ink stone is considered finish, the stone will be sent to yet another workshop before all the works are completed. In this carpentry workshop next door, each stone will receive its own wooden protective case made to the exact shape.





For the small stones at the bottom of the range, it is not worth making a box for these. They are cleaned and left to dry before being wrapped in paper with labelling.



We made another visit to a stone carving artist also live in

Unlike the production lines we have visited at the provious location, Mr is more like a stone artist who set a concept for each piece and then began the long and elaborate process and carving. He does a lot of research into buddhism arts and Chinese calligraphy



This ink pad piece represent the mirror scholars in the ancient time used to wear.



This pad was designed to shape like a temple bell.





The dragon is a symbol of the chinese emperor.







Sanding and waxing process