Harry Davies
Harry Davies

The History of India Ink: From Drunk Poets to Sumi-e

  • by Harry Davies @harry_davies

Ink has been essential for thousands of years of Chinese history

All the drawing materials we use have a history, and some of them go back much earlier than we can imagine. This is the case for India ink, known in some countries as "China ink," as it has been used in the countries in disciplines ranging from tattooing to comics, and whose existence is deeply linked to the history of the country.

Discover everything you always wanted to know about India ink in the video below: its origins, the reasons for its importance both in your country and in the rest of the world, and its unexpected connection to everything from the political to the economic, and, finally, the artistic.

The oracular bones

India ink is one of the oldest drawing materials in existence. Its origins are directly linked to the emergence of the Chinese alphabet. But where did the first manifestations of the ideograms we associate with the Asian country come from?

The oldest ideograms on record are found in some curious divination tools: the oracular bones. Made at least 1250 years before Christ, these bones were thrown into the fire to interpret the future in their cracks.

Many of them have characters carved into them and others have preserved ink inscriptions. Thus, already in the first historical samples of a more or less established Chinese alphabet, we can appreciate the importance of ink, something that would only grow during the next centuries.

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The first emperor's great obsession

The towns of what is now known as China had already spent thousands of years using ink made from a mix of soot and water before, in 221 BC, the first emperor of China made it a key element of the birth of his empire.

Qin Shi Huang was known for his eccentricities as the nation's dictator such as the original Great Wall and the terracota warriors. A believer in mysticism, Huang was obsessed with immortality. If he could not attain it himself, he would at least give it to his empire. That is what pushed him to take on the mammoth task of organizing various territories that, to this day, form part of China, unifying them in 221 BC.

Ink and a written alphabet that allowed thousands of bureaucrats to organize the land laid the foundations of the country we know today. From then on, ink would forever be inextricably linked to Chinese political life.

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A civil servant's art

It is not surprising, then, that if ink has always been linked to the government's organizational efforts, that the first masters of calligraphy were not artists or creators, but bureaucrats.

Civil servants and lawyers, educated in the order and perfection of the teachings of Confucius, served the empire until the 20th century. Dedicated to decades of study and contemplation, the Mandarins used every day, and little by little they conceived the art of handwriting of the Chinese ideograms.

But ideograms were nothing more than simplifications of objects and real world concepts, so, as the centuries passed, bureaucrats ended up going beyond symbols and started to paint reality.

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Sumi-e and its Chinese origin

The successors of those calligraphers went on to create a style of painting that everyone associates with China: cloudy landscapes, black and white tones, absent of people, this new ink drawing technique was called Sumi-e.

Sumi-e, which can be translated as "painting with black ink", is actually a Japanese term. Although the Chinese had already been using this technique for a long time when the Buddhist monks exported it to Japan in the 14th century, it was this term that would become popular, after the Japanese adapted the Chinese technique to their customs. In China, on the other hand, they called it mo-shui: painting with ink and gouache to achieve infinite shades of black.

The Chinese painters associated with mo-shui despised colour and created impossible perspectives without seeking to be faithful to external reality. Among many other things, they did not need to glorify their patrons or recreate imposing battles like European artists: it was not their head that moved the brush, but their heart, trained in Taoism and open to that which is beyond appearances. The weight of the tradition of the Mandarins and Chinese spirituality would make mo-shui a codified style that remains alive today.

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The first landscape without humans in history

Let us think for a moment: where could these literary artists take refuge, far from the palace intrigues and the imperial struggles that seemed to never end? In the place furthest from all of this: nature. Hence the great variety of landscapes that painting with Indian ink has left us.

Chinese landscape painting was called shan shui, literally "mountain-water", and it would become the noblest art, practiced by bureaucrats.

Its influence is incalculable: the drawing of Santa Maria Della Neve, by Leonardo Da Vinci, has traditionally been considered one of the first non-human landscapes in the history of European art, beyond some Greek and Roman frescoes. But this drawing, dating from 1473, is strikingly similar to the Landscape of a Winter Night by the Chinese painter Li Gongnian. And Gongnian painted his picture in 1120: over 300 years before Da Vinci.

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The drunken poet who was 800 years ahead

Chinese artists always had a deep respect for tradition, but that did not stop them from constantly innovating. And nothing proves that better than the story of Mi Fu.

Mi Fu was a drunkard poet who used to love stones: he called his favourite one "my brother". Mi Fu painted the mountains using dots: dots that are powerfully reminiscent of the pointillism of Seurat or Signac. Thus, the eccentric poet and the disciples who followed him, unwittingly and working within the constraints of the Chinese painting tradition, were 800 years ahead of the techniques of the Impressionists.

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The expansion of India ink

In the West, India ink would play an essential role in diverse artistic disciplines as trade routes developed: it is essential to tattoo culture, one of the bases of comic drawing, and artists have used it in their sketches throughout history.

Each country has taken advantage of its versatility to adapt it to their customs and styles. The English, for example, imported it from India, hence its English name.

But no matter what you call it: just remember that every time you use it, whether it's to ink a comic book, to touch up a portrait or to design a tattoo, you're participating in a thousands of years old story.

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You may also like:

- India Ink Illustration with Japanese Influence, a course by Mika Takahashi
- Introduction to Illustration with India Ink, a course by Hilda Palafox
- Introduction to Portraits with India Ink and Nibs, a course by José Rosero

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