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Ink Tablet in the Form of a Tortoise

The tortoise's shell lifts off to reveal where the inkstick was ground.

A water dropper, much like this one, would have been used to add water to the ground inkstick. Water droppers came in different shapes. The dragon, a symbolic animal in Chinese culture, was a popular form.

A peek into a scholar's study. If you look closely, you can see some of the writing tools on the desk.

key idea
The ink tablet was once an important writing tool for scholars.

This ink tablet was discovered in a tomb dating to the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220). At that time, ceramic objects were buried with the dead, to provide for them in the afterlife. These grave goods (called ming ch'i) reveal a lot about the career and social position of the deceased. The ink tablet, a writing tool, would have been buried with a scholar.

Of his four writing tools — ink tablet, inkstick, brush, and paper — the scholar prized the ink tablet above all.Ink tablets held deep spiritual meaning for scholars; they embodied the essence of heaven and earth and represented a microcosm of the universe This tablet's tortoise shape is a Taoist symbol of the entire universe.

Scholars used ink tablets to grind and mix ink for writing and painting. The tablets, which were made in different shapes, stood on feet and had a lid that lifted off (in this case the tortoise's shell). An inkstick, made of pine soot and an adhesive gum, was grated against the grainy inside of the ink tablet. As the stick was being grated, drops of water were added until the ink was ready. Then the scholar could dip his brush into it and begin his skillful writing.

October 2005