• China
  • China, Eastern Han period
  • 1-3c
  • Ceramic
  • H-10.5 W-18.8
Catalogue Entry

Inkstones were essential to the art of the brush in early China and were often fashioned in auspicious zoomorphic shapes. This inkstone is ceramic and in the shape of a tortoise, with the dome-shaped shell serving as a lid that could be turned over and used as a bowl in which solid ink was crushed. A shallow, concave receptacle for mixing water and ink is hollowed out in the slab that is shaped like a tortoise's body, and traces of ink remain on its surface. Numerous ceramic inkstones of the Han period were fashioned in the form of a tortoise with a removable shell.1

The Shumei tortoise is very naturalistic, with the artist rendering all the creature's essential characteristics. On the shell, there is an grid pattern of indented hexagons surrounded by a band of alternate groups of vertical and horizontal parallel lines. Wrinkles on the animal's sturdy legs suggest a first-hand study of anatomy.

In China, the tortoise has been considered an auspicious animal since Neolithic times, and their shells used for divination. The creature was often depicted on early ceramics and bronzes, such as the wonderful example on the base of the bronze you vessel in the Shumei collection (cat. no. 78). The tortoise was regarded as a model of the cosmos,2 its body symbolizing the earth and its shell the domed heavens. It also has associations with longevity and with water, both of which made it especially appropriate for the shape of an inkstone for the mixing of water and ink by a scholar.3

1. Wenwu 1964.1, pp. 49-52, fig. 4.1-.2.
2. For a discussion of early tortoise symbolism and motifs see Allan 1991, pp. 103-8, 110, 168-70.
3. Ibid., pp. 69-70.

119, Chinese tortoise inkstone entry, file "119-ent.doc" 11-Sep-97