|» Chinese calligraphy and painting » The four treasures of the study (Wenfang Sibao)|
The Four Treasures of the Study (wenfang Sibao)
The writing brush, ink stick, paper and inkslab are the traditional implements and materials for writing and painting and have always been named collectively as the "four treasures of the study".
Each of these items is represented by its "best": the xuan paper, hui ink stick, hu brush and duan inkslab are highly valued in the country and known abroad as well.
1. Xuan Paper (Xuanzhi)
This paper is mainly used for writing or painting on with a brush. It has a history of over 1,000 years, being a "tribute paper" for the court as early as the Tang Dynasty (618-907). What we know today as Chinese painting is, for the over whelming part, executed on xuan paper, without which one might say there would be no Chinese painting as it is.
Xuan paper is known to some Westerners as "rice paper", which is a misnomer. In fact, it is made from the bark of the wingceltis (Pteroceltis tatarinowli) mixed with rice straw. Its home is Jingxian County, Anhui Province. As the county belonged in ancient times to the prefecture of Xuanzhou and the trading centre of the paper was at Xuancheng, so it has always been called xuan paper.
The making of xuan paper is a pains-taking procedure involving 18 processes and nearly 100 operations and lasting over 300 days from the selection of materials to the finished product.
The xuan paper is praised as the "king of all papers" and is supposed to "last a thousand years". This is because it is white as alabaster, soft and firm, resistant to ageing and worms. It absorbs but does not spread the ink from the brush, which goes over it with a feel neither too smooth nor too rough. For these qualities, the xuan paper is not only used for painting and calligraphy, it is increasingly used nowadays for diplomatic notes, important archives and other documents. In addition, it may also be used for blotting, filtering and moisture-proof purposes.
2. The Hu Writing Brush (Hubi)
The writing brush is a functional handicraft article peculiar to China, an instrument still used by its pupils in calligraphy and painting exercises.
The first writing brush, according to legend, was made by Meng Tian, a general under the First Emperor of Qin (259-210 B.C.), long time in command of the troops stationed along the Great Wall.
Once he happened to see a tuft of sheep's wool stuck on the wall. Taking it down and tying it on a stick, he made the first writing brush. Archaeological finds, however, have given the lie to this story. Traces on the painted pottery unearthed at the ruins of the neolithic site of Banpo Village near Xi'an show that the brush in its crude, primitive form was used 6,000 years ago. But people still called Meng Tian梬ho may have improved upon the brush梩he originator of the writing tool. Shanlian Township in Wuxing County, Zhejiang Province梔ubbed the "metropolis of the writing brush"梚s also known as Mengxi (Meng's Stream) in memory of Meng Tian. The brushes produced at the township, which used to be under the Huzhou Prefecture in the old days, are called Hubi (Huzhou brushes) and supposed to be the best in the country.
The hu brush is made of the hairs of the goat, hare and yellow weasel, all marked by a quality which is at once soft and resilients. Dipped in the black Chinese ink, the hu brush may follow the manoeuvres of the writer's hand to produce a variety of strokes梔ark or light, wet and solid or half dry and hollow梖or different effects in the writing or painting.
First-grade hu brushes must meet four requirements: a sharp tip, neat hair arrangement, rounded shape and great resilience. Their making involves more than 70 steps of careful work. For instance, the preparation of the material alone means that the hairs of a goat or hare must be sorted out into dozens of bunches according to thickness, length, and softness or stiffness. Then hairs of different specifications are used to make different brushes meant for different uses. Now hu brushes are produced in more than 200 varieties.
The sticks for the brushes, made from local bamboo of high quality, are often decorated with ivory, horn or redwood; some are mounted at the top with horn or bone for the purposes of inscription.
Hu brushes, renowned as "king of writing brushes", used to be supplied to the imperial court. They were also a necessary item on the desks of men of letters or of means.
3. The Hui Ink Stick (Huimo)
The Chinese "solid ink" or ink stick is used to produce ink, when needed; it can also be a work of art.
The way to make Chinese ink is to put a little water on an inkslab and then rub the ink stick on it round and round. When the liquid becomes thick and black enough, it is ready for writing with a brush.
Before the ink stick was developed, graphite was used for writing.When the country became more developed, it was during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C-220 A. D.) that graphite could not meet the growing demands. It was then that ink sticks began to be produced with pine or tung soot. The art was perfected during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when high-quality ink sticks were made of the soot of pine resin, pork lard and vegetable oil.
The best Chinese ink sticks were first made in Shexian County, Anhui Province, and they are generally called hui sticks because Shexian was named Huizhou in the Song Dynasty.
This type of ink sticks was developed by ink artisan Xi Chao and his son Xi Tinggui of the Tang Dynasty, and then the art spread to the whole prefecture of Huizhou.
Hui ink sticks of the best quality contain musk, borneol and other precious aromatics normally used in Chinese medicine. These preserve the black colour for a long period of time.
Ordinary ink sticks are sold by the piece, but costly ones are more often than not sold in pairs. They are as a rule decorated with pictures and poems, gilded and coloured by the hand of well-known artists. Arranged in pairs in a satin-finished box, they are too good to be used but are kept by collectors as postage stamps are kept by philatelists.
Accomplished Chinese artists and calligraphers have always attached great importance to the selection of ink sticks. During the Qing Dynasty, a first-rate piece could be literally worth its weight in gold.
4. The Duan Inkslab (Duanyan)
To write with a brush, one must prepare one's own ink. Chinese ancestors developed the inkslab or inkstone for this purpose.
The earliest Chinese inkslabs unearthed so far date from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), showing that this utensil for ink-making has been in use in the country for at least 2,000 years.
In a nutshell,the inkstone (yan or yantai) is a sort of millstone on which water is turned into ink by the rubbing of an ink stick. It is generally made of stone of a smooth and fine-grained variety.
To the fastidious calligrapher, a good inkslab should be made of the stone produced at Duanxi, a suburb east of the city of Zhaoqing(formerly Duanzhou). Guangdong Province. Named after the home of the stone, the duan inkslab has a history of over 1,500 years and has always been regarded as a valuable item in the scholar's study.
The stone must go through several painstaking processes before it is turned into the finished slab. These include quarrying, selecting, cutting, polishing and making of the containing box. The most difficult part is the digging-out of the stone, which lies under the Keshan Mountain near Zhaoqing. Quarrymen have to make tunnels at the foot of the mountain, drain them of water and creep in to dig out the right kind of stone梐ll carried out under exacting circumstances.
Duan inkslabs are valued for their fine and smooth surfaces which look as if glossy with moisture. They make ink fairly fast and wet the hair of the writing brush evenly; they are also good for keeping left-over ink. A well-chosen piece of stone may also bear fine veins, indistinct but pretty to look at.
Copyright © 2003-2006 Bravochina LLC USA. All rights reserved.