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Ink Tablet in the Form of a Tortoise

Smiling face. Strong back. Sturdy legs. This little tortoise is poised and ready to do his job.

Chinese scholars used ink tablets for grinding inksticks and mixing ink. This tortoise-shaped tablet would have been highly valued by its owner, because the tortoise is rich in symbolism.

China, Ink Tablet in the Form of a Tortoise, Eastern Han Dynasty, earthenware with modeled and incised decor, including the Eight Trigrams of the I-Ching (The Book of Changes)

The tortoise is a symbolic animal in Chinese culture.
The symbols on the tortoise’s back are the Eight Trigrams.
The ink tablet was once an important writing tool for scholars.

Investigating Tortoises: What do you know about tortoises? Where do they live? What do they eat? How big do they get? Use the library or internet to research five facts about tortoises. Write an essay that includes your findings.  

Animal Hunt: The tortoise is not the only animal that held symbolic meaning in ancient Chinese culture. Go for an animal hunt in the Chinese galleries at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Read the labels to see if the animal’s symbolic meaning is mentioned. If it’s not, write down the animal (or draw a sketch) and research it’s meaning after your museum visit.  

A Tortoise Tale: The tortoise is the hero in many Chinese myths. Write your own myth that includes a tortoise as the hero. What heroic deed did the tortoise do? Create illustrations to help tell your story.  

October 2005