Category Archives: Science and Technology Studies

‘What makes work meaningful?’: Q&A with ‘The Social Life of Inkstones’ author Dorothy Ko

The following interview originally appeared at Barnard News and is adapted and used with permission. (Courtesy of N. Jamiyla Chisholm, Barnard College, New York City.)


To honor Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, Barnard College professor of history Dorothy Ko offers a peek into ancient and modern-day Eastern culture and politics.

According to the Library of Congress, Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month takes place in May for two reasons: May 7, 1843, marked the immigration of the first Japanese citizen to the U.S.; and on May 10, 1869, the transcontinental railroad was completed, mostly by Chinese immigrant workers.

Credit: Marvin Trachetenberg

Dorothy Ko explores the subjects of gender and body in early modern China. In her books, Ko unravels the complex worlds of Chinese footbinding (Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding), fashion (Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet), and feminism (Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth-Century China). Her latest, The Social Life of Inkstones: Artisans and Scholars in Early Qing China, introduces the West to the world of ancient Asian stones and includes close to 100 images (see slideshow below). Ko explains the significance of this highly specialized art form.

What exactly is an inkstone and what is its significance in East Asian culture?

An inkstone is a piece of polished stone about the size of an outstretched palm. Before the invention of fountain pens, let alone laptops and iPads, every student, writer, or painter in East Asia had to grind a fresh supply of ink at the desk by dipping an ink-stick in water and rubbing it on the surface of the stone. This process was as instinctive to them as recharging our iPhones is to us. Day in and day out, the writers and painters developed deep attachments to their implements. More than an instrument for writing, the inkstone was a collectible object of art, a father’s gift to his school-bound son, a token of friendship, and even a diplomatic gift between states.

Why is this tool so unfamiliar to Western civilizations when it has represented so much for the East for more than a millennium?

Europeans drew ink from an inkpot so they had no use for an ink-grinding stone. Nor did the early European collectors appreciate its subtle beauty as the Chinese connoisseurs did. The color of the inkstone tended to be deep purple or black; it is small and does not display well in a stately home or fancy apartment. So it is no wonder that there is no notable collection of inkstones in Europe or America.

Your book shines a light on craftswoman Gu Erniang who became famous for her inkstone-making skills, which were refined between the 1680s and 1730s. What made her such a standout?

Her extraordinary skills. Gu Erniang was a remarkable woman who thrived in a field dominated by men; she became more famous than her male colleagues. Her name was associated with technical and artistic innovations as well as refined taste. It is also interesting to mention that she enjoyed more gender freedom than her genteel sisters in that she could receive male patrons in her studio to discuss commissioned projects face-to-face.

How has the significance of inkstone artisans changed over time?

Gu Erniang was one of the first inkstone makers in China to attach her signature mark on her work, suggesting a heightened respect that exceptional artisans like her enjoyed. Today, because the inkstone is no longer a functional object, all inkstone artisans have to present themselves as creative artists.

What interests you most in this topic area and what are some of the biggest “ah ha!” moments you had conducting research for the book?

I love all the modern conveniences we enjoy but increasingly feel the need to look back and reassess the heavy price we pay for such “industrial development” or “progress.” I became interested in the craftsmen because theirs was a sustainable livelihood that was environmentally responsible. Through their eyes, I arrive at tentative answers to my big question at the moment: What makes work meaningful? The craftsman’s answer: Making one-of-a-kind objects with attention and skill in a collaborative environment. Craft makes us more human by inspiring us to strive for perfection.

How does the research conducted for this book connect to research from your previous publications on footbinding and Chinese feminism?

As a historian of gender, I’m sensitive to power inequalities and trained to analyze the operations of power. In the same way that I had retrieved women in Chinese history in my earlier books, I set out to retrieve the artisans from erasure in the hands of male scholars. Little did I know that the latter turned out to be a far more difficult project.

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