Ink Tablet in the Form of a Tortoise


Smiling face. Strong back. Sturdy legs. This little tortoise is poised and ready to do his job.

Chinese scholars used ink tablets for grinding inksticks and mixing ink. This tortoise-shaped tablet would have been highly valued by its owner, because the tortoise is rich in symbolism.

China, _Ink Tablet in the Form of a Tortoise_, Eastern Han Dynasty, earthenware with modeled and incised decor, including the Eight Trigrams of the _I-Ching_ (_The Book of Changes_)


The tortoise is a symbolic animal in Chinese culture.

In ancient China, the tortoise was a sacred animal. Followers of the philosopher Confucius considered it one of the Four Spiritually Endowed Creatures, along with the unicorn, phoenix, and dragon. In Taoist (DOW-ist) philosophy, the tortoise symbolizes the universe. Its domed shell represents the heavens, and its flat underside, the earth.

The tortoise is the hero of many Chinese legends. According to one of them, a giant tortoise helped the first emperor tame the flooding waters of the Yellow River. As a reward, the emperor granted the tortoise ten thousand years of life. So the tortoise became an emblem of strength and long life. Real tortoises actually live more than 150 years on average still a very long time!

In Chinese mythology, the tortoise is one of the Four Celestial Animals that rule the four directions. Known as the Dark Warrior, the tortoise (with a snake coiled around it) rules the North, including the northern part of the sky. (The tiger rules the West, the dragon the East, and the phoenix the South.) The color black, the winter season, and water are all associated with the Dark Warrior.

During China’s Shang dynasty (1766-1122 B.C.), tortoise shells were used in ceremonies to predict the future. A question was posed (sometimes even written on the shell), and the shell was heated with fire until it cracked. Then a person known as a “diviner” found the answer by looking at the cracks in the shell.

This water dropper is shaped like a tortoise with a snake on its back, symbolizing the Dark Warrior

This tortoise-shaped seal was used to stamp official documents. Because of their symbolism, tortoises were important emblems for the educated class.


The symbols on the tortoise’s back are the Eight Trigrams.

The ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism (DOW-ism) explains the world as a combination of two forces yin and yang. Yin (from the word for “shady”) includes darkness, water, wind, and the earth. Yang (from the word for “bright”) includes light, fire, rain, and the heavens. Yin is passive, while yang is active. Everything in the universe results from the interaction of yin and yang.

Carved on this tortoise’s back are Taoist symbols called the Eight Trigrams. A trigram is made up of three lines, either solid lines (solid lines for yang or broken lines for yin). Each trigram stands for either a yin or yang element: water, mountain, heaven, thunder, fire, lake, earth, and wind. It’s no coincidence that the Eight Trigrams appear on an ink tablet shaped like a tortoise. According to legend, a tortoise rose from the depths of the Yellow River with these markings on its back.

The Eight Trigrams are read from bottom to top. Their order can vary. Often they are arranged in a circle, to symbolize yin-yang energy. The trigrams can be paired up to form sixty-four hexagrams, showing all situations that arise in the universe. Their meanings are explained in an ancient Chinese book called the _I-Ching_, or _Book of Changes_.

This trigram, made of three broken lines, symbolizes the earth. Trigrams are also associated with animals, family members, numbers, parts of the body, directions, seasons, colors, and illnesses.

Another trigram symbolizes the wind. Each trigram has a name. This one is called xun.

Combined, these three unbroken lines represent the heavens. This trigram is also associated with the northwest direction, night time, and the winter season.


The ink tablet was once an important writing tool for scholars.

This ink tablet was discovered in a tomb dating to the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220). At that time, ceramic objects were buried with the dead, to provide for them in the afterlife. These grave goods (called ming ch’i) reveal a lot about the career and social position of the deceased. The ink tablet, a writing tool, would have been buried with a scholar.

Of his four writing tools ink tablet, inkstick, brush, and paper the scholar prized the ink tablet above all. Ink tablets held deep spiritual meaning for scholars; they embodied the essence of heaven and earth and represented a microcosm of the universe This tablet’s tortoise shape is a Taoist symbol of the entire universe.

Scholars used ink tablets to grind and mix ink for writing and painting. The tablets, which were made in different shapes, stood on feet and had a lid that lifted off (in this case the tortoise’s shell). An inkstick, made of pine soot and an adhesive gum, was grated against the grainy inside of the ink tablet. As the stick was being grated, drops of water were added until the ink was ready. Then the scholar could dip his brush into it and begin his skillful writing.

The tortoise’s shell lifts off to reveal where the inkstick was ground.

A water dropper, much like this one, would have been used to add water to the ground inkstick. Water droppers came in different shapes. The dragon, a symbolic animal in Chinese culture, was a popular form.

A peek into a scholar’s study. If you look closely, you can see some of the writing tools on the desk.


Related Activities

Investigating Tortoises

What do you know or want to know about tortoises? Where do they live? What do they eat? How big do they get? Use the library or internet to research five facts about tortoises. Write an essay that includes your findings.

Animal Treasure Hunt

The tortoise is not the only animal that held symbolic meaning in ancient Chinese culture. Go for an animal treasure hunt in the Chinese galleries at The Minneapolis Institute of Art. Read the labels to see if the animal’s symbolic meaning is mentioned. If it’s not, write down the animal (or draw a sketch) and research its meaning after your museum visit. It is easy to schedule a visit to the museum using our [online tour request form](

A Tortoise Tale

The tortoise is the hero in many Chinese myths. Write your own myth that includes a tortoise as the hero. What heroic deed did the tortoise do? Create illustrations to help tell your story.