The art of calligraphy and painting is one of the most distinctive traditional art categories in China. Their unique utensils are the “four treasures of the study”: ink brush, inkstick, paper, and inkstone. However, inksticks are not convenient to use. To make ink, the inkstick has to be continuously ground on the inkstone, which is laborious and unproductive. Sometimes even a dedicated grinder is needed. Things changed more than a century ago. In 1865, Mr. Xie Songdai invented ink in Beijing Colored Glaze Factory and wrote a couplet, “One craft is enough for the world; Method came from ancient books”, which was hung at the entrance of his ink store. He named the ink store after the first characters of the couplet, “Yi De” (“One” and “Method”), which was the origin of Yi De Ge.
Xie Songdai was originally a scholar who went to the capital for imperial examinations. When he failed the first exam, he thought that grinding the inksticks was so time-consuming that he could not finish writing within the given time. Wouldn’t it be much more convenient if ink could be made for writing directly, saving both time and effort? So after “trial and error, (I) have gradually got to know the method of collecting (soot) into a bottle or box, so (the ink color) would not be too light or dark”. He finally made ink with oil soot and other auxiliary materials with the same effect as inksticks. The ink became popular among literati as soon as it was launched to the market.
After more than 100 years of development, Yi De Ge has produced a variety of inks, all of which are black in different categories. Yi De Ge’s ink-making skill has been added to the National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of China. The ink produced by Yi De Ge has become the preferred choice of Chinese calligraphers, painters, and enthusiasts of the art, with such great calligraphers as Shu Tong, Qi Gong and Fan Zeng having used ink made by Yi De Ge. Its ink smells good and gives off faint herbal fragrance. The layers of ink are also particularly rich. If there are few and boring ink variations in a painting or calligraphy work, it will look dull, which greatly worsens the quality of the work. Yi De Ge ink can vividly show the scorched, thick, heavy, light and clear colors. Together with the faded, dry, drained, moist, and wet expressions in each ink color, it can fully demonstrate the rich variations in the use of ink in calligraphy and painting and create good works.
The superior product quality has made Yi De Ge, a century-old brand, still synonymous with ink through the changes of the late Qing Dynasty, the Republic of China, and the People’s Republic of China. Yi De Ge ink is made with particular ingredients and unique recipes. Xie Songdai once summarized the method of making inksticks as eight processes: “The first is to collect the soot; the second is to grind the soot; the third is to mix soot with the glue; the fourth is to remove the slag; the fifth is to make ink cakes; the sixth is to put them into boxes; the seventh is to add musk, and the eighth is to make inksticks.” The main ingredients of the ink are carbon black and bone glue. Adding bone glue to the carbon black can generate buoyancy, so that the ink can be applied to the paper without getting wet, and the proportion of glue determines the quality and effect of the ink. Yi De Ge has refined the recipes over the past century to achieve the ideal state of “the scorched ink is rich, black but not scratchy. The light ink is fresh, light but not loose.” Yi De Ge has added Chinese medicinal materials to ink. The addition of borneol, musk, mugwort, and other excipients makes the ink full of medicinal fragrance. As anyone who has used ink knows, Yi De Ge ink, unlike other ink with a foul smell, gives off a slight aroma. The aroma has become a signature of Yi De Ge, an essential symbol of the brand. Yi De Ge’s recipes for making ink are national secrets, but some of the ingredients that have been made public manifest the medicinal ink properties of its products.
As times are changing at a dizzying pace, many time-honored brands have been on the decline because they cannot adapt to the time. But Yi De Ge has not rested on its laurels. Although Yi De Ge uses century-old recipes, it has industrialized its operations. In the production of ink, glue boiling is the most critical process. Yi De Ge still uses manual operation to boil the glue, but the boiling process has been electrified. It has benefited from advances in equipment, while keeping the basic process unchanged. Honors and accolades only mean the previous achievements. Yi De Ge understands that the essence of a company is innovation and development. It has to add new vitality into the brand to make it brim with vigor.
One of the most typical examples of Yi De Ge’s innovation today is gold ink. During the Chinese New Year, it is very festive to write gold characters on red papers. Gold ink has a large market, but it was prepared by calligraphers themselves in the past. Yi De Ge has made gold ink a product with true color rendering and ready-to-use features. The product has gained wide recognition among calligraphers. Yi De Ge’s gold ink is a hot seller and even hard to come by when the Chinese New Year is around the corner.
Yi De Ge has established a diversified product portfolio centered on ink. Some secondary products include high-end “four treasures of the study”, traditional inkpads, and inksticks. The new products complement the traditional and classic ones to meet the various needs of consumers and make the traditional brand of “Yi De Ge” shine again.