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May 14, 2017

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When ink was worth more than gold

IT is estimated that there are about 190,000 people surnamed Xi in China, making it the 281st most common name in the country.

There are two early branches of Xi families. One is derived from the family of Ren, one of the 25 sons of the Yellow Emperor (2717-2599 BC). And the history of the Xi family is believed to originate from a man named Xi Zhong, who was an official in charge of vehicle-making in early Xia Dynasty (21st-16th century BC). Some scholars hold that it is Xi who created vehicles in the first place. And his offspring took the first character in his name as their surname ever since.

Then, there have been minorities changing their surnames to Xi throughout Chinese history represented by the Xianbei Group.

There hasn’t so far a clear map of the migration of Xi in history, but the population surnamed Xi is now found throughout China.

The celebrity of the family includes Xi Chao and his son Xi Tinggui in the Southern Tang Dynasty (AD 937-975) — two top Chinese ink cake makers.

It is said that the ink cakes from their hands were as strong as jade, with patterns like those of a rhinoceros horn, fine and smooth in texture, and great lustre. Soaked in water for three years, the ink cakes never went soft, the water didn’t get black and the cake didn’t get sticky.

Highly appreciated by Emperor Li of Southern Tang Dynasty, the Xi family descendants were approved as officials of ink cake, and granted the royal surname Li.

And in the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279), all imperial edicts were written with ink cakes from the Xi family. About 500 kilogram of Xi cakes were paid as tribute to the imperial court annually, and hardly any could be bought in the market.

As the saying went: “Gold is available, but the Li’s (Xi’s) ink is unattainable.”


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