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Cheng Dayue

Cheng Dayue



Ink tablet designer

Ink Tablets. Cheng Dayue was the youngest of three sons of a prosperous merchant in a village south of Nanjing. In 1564 he attempted to enter the National University in Beijing, but he failed to pass the provincial examination. He soon became interested in nature and geography. He also engaged in the making of ink tablets and purchased a large collection of nature scenes, many of which had been made by master craftsmen of earlier times. In the meantime, Cheng Dayue also began an ink-manufacturing enterprise.

Ink Sticks. In 1592 he obtained a position as an usher in the Court of State Ceremonial. He left that petty official position the next year and returned home, where he was accused of murder and sent to prison. Appealing the conviction, Cheng Dayue was ultimately acquitted and released in 1600. He then became involved in producing ink sticks and ink cakes on which he imprinted elaborate artistic designs. Samples of his products circulated among the elite, including the emperor.

Great Achievement. After 1600 he invented a new formula to make ink (oil mixed with lacquer). His devotion to the art was inspired by the success of the illustrated catalogue of ink tablets of a former partner. In 1606 he produced his own catalogue of ink tablets, a book of designs and illustrations together with essays, poems, eulogies, and testimonials from grateful recipients. In releasing his album Cheng Dayue spared neither effort nor expense in engaging the best talents, persuading well-known artists to furnish the bulk of the illustrations and famous scholars and important officials to contribute literary pieces and calligraphy. He arranged the illustrations under such categories as natural and unusual phenomena, geography, famous personalities, animal kingdoms, and Confucian, Buddhism, and Daoist teachings.

Later Life. In his life Cheng Dayue made more than 130 revisions to his catalogue, complaining of a lack of cooperation on the part of certain scholars. He also became interested in Buddhism. Accused of murder a second time, he starved himself to death in prison.


L. Carrington Goodrich and Chaoying Fang, eds., Dictionary of Ming Biography (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976).

F. W. Mote, Imperial China, 900-1800 (Cambridge, Mass. & London:Harvard University Press, 1999).

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