Sea of Ink

Richard Weihe

Translated from the Swiss German by Jamie Bulloch

Published by Peirene Press 17 September 2012


Peirene Press publishes novellas in translation, ‘Two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting: literary cinema for those fatigued by film’ (Times Literary Supplement). It’s latest – and ninth – publication is devoted to the life of Bada Shanren, one of the most influential Chinese painters of all time. As the old Ming Dynasty crumbles, Bada Shanren, born into the Chinese royal family in 1626, devotes himself to capturing the essence of nature with a single brushstroke. Then the rulers of the new Qing Dynasty discover his identity…

Now sample an extract from this magical short work for yourself.






On one occasion his father made him step barefoot into a bowl full of ink and then walk along the length of a roll of paper. To begin with Zhu’s footprints were wet and black; with each step they became lighter until they were barely visible any more. Then he hopped from the paper back on to the wooden floor.

His father took a brush and wrote at the top of the scroll: A small segment of the long path of my son Zhu Da. And further down: A path comes into existence by walking on it.

The palace had its own workshop for manufacturing brushes and ink. Zhu liked to watch the master and his assistants at work. The open stoves made the workshop dingy and dusty. The fire, Zhu thought, so that’s where he gets his colourful dragon, and the lotus flower too.

One day, after Zhu pleaded with him insistently, the master explained how ink is made.

‘To make ink we need two ingredients,’ he said, ‘soot and glue. The soot provides the colour, the glue binds it. We mix them together, working them into a kneadable paste in mortars. We then press the paste into carved wooden moulds and let it dry until it’s completely hard.’

‘What’s soot?’ Zhu wanted to know.

‘In the forest we collect resinous branches from old pine trees. We burn them in the stove. What remains afterwards is a fine black powder. This powder is the soot.’

‘And how do you make the glue?’

‘To make glue we order stags’ antlers from Dai province. We cut the horns into finger-length pieces and place these in the river. They stay in the water for twelve days and twelve nights until they’re washed through and clean. Then we put the pieces in a large pan. If you cook them for long enough they turn into a thick sludge. If you cook them for even longer they eventually turn into glue. And the glue and soot need to be pounded thirty thousand times in the iron mortar to mix them properly.’

The master encouraged him to peer into the huge pan where a soup with chunks of stags’ antlers was boiling away, but Zhu held his nose and turned aside fast.

‘That stinks!’

‘I agree, the smell is somewhat unpleasant. It always troubled your father, too. So he developed his own recipe.’

The master took a small bottle from the shelf.

‘Here, take a sniff, Prince.’

A pleasant, spicy aroma wafted into Zhu’s nose.

‘That’s a mixture of cloves, camphor and musk. We use it as a perfume. It has a stronger aroma than the glue.’

Now the master held a second phial under his nose. Zhu was instantly taken by the fruity, heady smell.

‘An infusion of bark from the pomegranate tree,’ the master said. ‘Your father always adds this secret preparation. That’s why his ink is called “The envoy of the pomegranate tree”.’

The master raised his forefinger and looked Zhu sternly in the eye.

‘But you didn’t hear a word from me, my prince.’


At the age of thirteen, Zhu Da enrolled in Nanchang as a student for entry into the civil service. A glittering future lay before him: the life of a cultivated art lover and man of letters, dividing his time between the study of beauty, managing provincial affairs and pleasure.

A few years later his family chose a girl from a good family as a suitable wife for the prince. In the very first year of their marriage she gave birth to a child

This was also the year when the Ming dynasty came to an end and the Qing dynasty began.

 First, the capital fell into the hands of the Manchus. But after the conquest of Peking the majority of the country remained under Chinese rule. From the capital the Manchus embarked on their systematic conquest of the entire empire. It did not take them long to win over Chinese collaborators for their campaign.

Nanking had long been regarded as a second capital city in the south. There the Ming princes were able to maintain their rule after the fall of Peking. But a struggle broke out over the succession. From among the many rivals a clique of influential officials finally named the Prince of Fu as emperor

The Prince of Fu preferred the easy life. His father had tracked down and killed followers of the rebel Li. The prince now sent four armies northwards to the banks of the Yangtze as protection. But the four generals fought among themselves for supremacy. Instead of forming a united front against the Manchu onslaught, the soldiers marauded and plundered their way through the villages. Only one of the generals, Shi Kefa, showed the necessary resolve in the fight against the advancing enemy, until a faction of adversaries from Nanchang toppled him from power.

Zhu’s home city of Nanchang lay to the south-west of Nanking, in the province of Jiangxi. There the prince lived with his wife and young son in the palace.

Dark clouds were gathering in the sky, but no storm had yet brushed the earth.



The Manchus retained their organisation of the Eight Banners and began stationing garrisons of banner soldiers in key places. They adopted the existing Chinese administrative system without any major changes and did not touch the landowners’ estates. They did not break their rice bowls, as the saying goes, for the Manchus were full of admiration for Chinese culture. And so it happened that scholars moved to the capital in droves to offer their services in administrative posts.

The government in Nanking tried negotiating with the Manchus. They sent an embassy to Peking to suggest that the Manchus limit their conquests to the area north of the Great Wall. But the envoys returned with the counter-suggestion that Nanking, too, should recognise the sovereignty of the new rulers. On that condition Nanking could remain as the seat of a vassal state in southern China.

Secretly, neither side was seriously interested in negotiations or any sort of compromise. While the envoys were still on their journey back to Nanking, the Manchus were preparing their army for the conquest of the south.

When they attacked the city of Yangzhou on the northern bank of the Yangtze, they encountered their first meaningful resistance. General Shi Kefa defended the city heroically against the offensive by superior forces. He held Yangzhou for eight days; on the ninth the Manchus broke through the gates.

When they saw the soldiers flood in, the men cowered on the ground. Nobody dared take flight. They lowered their heads, bared their necks and waited for the swish of the sword. The young women tried to buy their lives with their bodies and offered themselves up to the soldiers. Some hid in rubbish heaps, smeared themselves with muck and sought to disguise themselves. But the soldiers prodded the refuse with spears until the last of them crawled out like startled rats.

The general was taken prisoner. In his situation many would have gone over to the Manchus. But he refused and remained loyal to his former masters.

Shi Kefa was executed in the most grisly way imaginable.

The Chinese general Hong Chengchou was one of those who sided with the enemy. After the fall of Yangzhou he led the Qing armies further south. In the summer of 1645 they stood at the gates of Nanking. The Prince of Fu’s government collapsed under the pressure of this threat. One of his own generals handed the prince over to the Qing forces. They dragged him back to Peking and his fate was sealed. A few months later he was dead. 

Some Ming princes were still trying to prolong the rule of their dynasty. Their attempts proved futile, however. The Prince of Lu set himself up as regent in Zhejiang province. But without resources and supplies he was unable to hold out for long.

Another, the Prince of Tang, was named emperor in August 1645. His closest ally was a former pirate, Zheng Zhilong, who had since blossomed into a wealthy businessman and official. As a military leader, however, Zheng was no match for the might of the Manchus. When he finally surrendered, the conquerors were able to cross the mountain passes he had been guarding to Zhejiang and Fujian. Now the Manchus could continue their expansion into new prefectures and provinces unopposed.

The prince escaped to Hunan. Once there he found himself confronted by the last scattered troops of the rebel leader Li. His attempts to put together a powerful army failed. The prince fell into the hands of the Manchus and was executed on the spot.

His younger brother managed to flee toCanton, where he lasted another two months, a shadow of the former ruling power. When the Qing troops, led by a turncoat Chinese general, finally invaded Canton, the shadow vanished too. The sun of the Ming dynasty was extinguished.


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