Tiny ink monkey beloved of ancient scholars rediscovered in Fujian
Hong Kong (Apr 23, 1996 3:54 p.m. EDT) -- A miniature monkey, traditionally a pet for Chinese scholars and thought to be extinct, has been discovered alive in southeastern China. According to Monday’s People’s Daily, the little creature, weighing only seven ounces, exists in the mountains of Fujian province just opposite Taiwan.
Known as Ink or Pen Monkeys because scholars kept them in their studies, where it is said they ground and prepared ink, passed brushes and turned pages, the monkeys slept in the drawers of scholars’ desks or curled up in their brush pots. Zhu Xi, the 12th century philosopher, is said to have kept such a monkey. No information was given on the species of the monkey or how many there are.
The use of such a monkey as part of a mandarin’s impedimenta fits in with traditional scholars’ tastes for the exotic or the bizarre. Their desks were cluttered with brush holders and ink-grinding stones, and impractical but tactile things made of roots, jade, bones, and wood. They wrote and exchanged tales of deformed or mutant humans or animals, and prized unusual trees and plants.
To add a tiny and rare monkey to the business of writing would add to a scholar’s pleasure and to his reputation for eccentricity, which was also prized.
Ink, which has been known in China since at least 2000 BC, was regarded as one of the “four treasures of the artist’s studio,” together with paper, the brush, and the ink stone. Valuable inks were compounded from precious materials including gold, rare herbs and barks, pearls, sandalwood, and musk, which were added to basic ingredients like pine soot and glue, and were used not only for writing in which their luster, blackness and durability were admired, but in cosmetics and medicines.
What Zhu Xi’s ink monkey may have done was to grasp a stick of ink in the shape of a flower or fish and decorated in gold with trees, cranes, dragons, landscapes, and grind it slowly in an elaborately carved and perfectly smooth ink stone with especially pure water until the ink was the desired consistency and shade for a particular kind of writing or painting.
Great makers, connoisseurs and collectors of ink were almost as well-known in China as the best painters, and no Communist leader today would wish to show ignorance of the art of using properly ground ink when he writes an inscription to hang over the door of an official building or to head a new magazine or newspaper. Chairman Mao fancied himself as a calligrapher and his brushwork, in the style of a 13th century emperor and sometimes printed in imperial vermilion, graces the title page of the People’s Daily.