A necessity in Chinese traditional painting and calligraphy, ink was famously seen as one of the must-have items to equip an ancient Chinese study. Now, it is being recognized as equally essential among a list of cultural items whose continued production China is working to ensure.
Traditional crafts including ink-making will be showcased in an event in Beijing between Feb. 5-15 that will aim to raise their profile. It will be based around "intangible cultural heritage" (ICH), a set of old skills and crafts designated by authorities as worthy of protection.
Specifically, the organizers will focus on "preservation-orientated" businesses, enterprises funded by government to ensure that the next generation can carry on production in otherwise-threatened industries.
Famed craftsmen will be brought to the Chinese capital to show off their skills. In the case of ink production, they will travel from central province of Anhui.
The most famous ink sticks, solid forms ground with water to turn it to liquid, are the Hui ink sticks produced in Anhui, where the practice dates back at least 1,100 years ago.
The unique pigment is made from pines that grow on Huangshan Mountain, and it got the name "Hui" ink as the outcropping was originally under the jurisdiction of Huizhou.
Like many other traditional crafts that represent the essence of ancient Chinese culture, Hui ink-making is being increasingly distanced from people's daily lives as the country marches towards modernization.
Ordinary people now seldom use ink sticks, which means the market for Hui ink-making businesses is shrinking, thus making it difficult to preserve the craft. However, Hui ink was in the first batch of items that China placed on its list of ICH items in 2006, and thus there is hope for the craft.
More recently, in October 2011, China's Ministry of Culture certified 41 areas into which "preservation-orientated" funding would be concentrated. Southern Anhui was one of them. A major base for the traditional production of ink sticks, paper, brush and ink stones, it has around 400 firms involved in ICH businesses, with an annual output of one billion yuan (158 million U.S. dollars).
One of them is Ju Mo Tang, a workshop run by 41-year-old famed Hui ink craftsman Xiang Shengli. It operates as a successful business but also as a breeding ground to pass down the craft to Xiang's team of more than 30 workers, and also students.
"After three to five years of practice, they will stand out and their concern of making the ink sticks for economic profit will develop into heartfelt love for the craft itself," Xiang says.
Collectibles produced by Xiang's workshop, including ink sticks, ink sculptures, paintings and calligraphy works, are popular at home and abroad, generating an annual revenue of nearly one million yuan.
"Most of China's ICH items are formed during production activities and their preservation and passing-down can only be achieved through production and practice of related works," says Fang Lishan, a research fellow at Anhui Provincial Research Institute of Culture and History.
Ancient cultural heritage can sustain its vitality through continued funding support. Preservation-oriented ICH business development stresses tapping the productive forces of cultural heritage but it also focuses more on the cultural works' uniqueness and the value of craftsmen's skills, according to Fang.
"It differs much from the mode of mass industrial production, which aspires for low cost, standardized products by maximizing the value of machine work," the researcher says.
To meet the demand of the high-end painting and calligraphy market, Ju Mo Tang has continued to develop new and quality products, like pine-soot ink sticks, which serves as a good way not only to preserve the craft but also to promote traditional culture domestically and overseas.
"We're trying to expand the market demand, not out of economic concern, but for preservation of heritage," Xiang says.