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The Four Treasures of the Study

Four stationery items indispensable to any traditional Chinese scholar are a brush pen, an inkstick, paper, and an inkstone. They are the main tools with which he carries out his scholarly work, and for this reason they came to be called the "four treasures of the study" (*** wen fang szu pao).

The distinctive and elegant arts of Chinese calligraphy and painting have in recent years taken a prominent place in the international art world, and are the focus of much interest and discussion. Any person involved in the traditional Chinese arts of painting and calligraphy must rely heavily on the brush pen, ink, paper, and the inkstone, for it is only through these tools that the beauty of Chinese art receives concrete expression. As a result, much importance has been attached the "four treasures of the study."

"To do a good job, one must first sharpen one's tools," a Chinese aphorism goes. An artist naturally takes selection of his tools very seriously. In dynasties of literary prominence, such as the T'ang (618-907 A.D.) and Sung (960-1279 A.D.), the art of the "four treasures of the study" reached heights of exquisiteness and excellence. Examples are the T'ang dynasty Chu Ke brush pen *** and Tuan Hsi inkstone ***, and the Li T'ing-kuei inkstick *** and Ch'eng Hsin T'ang paper *** of the Five Dynasties period (907-960 A.D.). High quality "treasures of the study" made a direct contribution to the development of Chinese painting and calligraphy. The popularization of printing and mass production of paper and ink in the Sung dynasty permitted the works of the many outstanding calligraphers and painters who emerged at that time to be widely distributed. Many books published in these early times are still extant today; the fact that the paper remained intact and the ink did not fade away after more than one thousand years is proof of the high quality of workmanship employed.

The brush pen (*** mao pi) has been the irreplaceable tool of Chinese painters and calligraphers since ancient times. The brush pen was invented very early in China's history. According to new evidence from modern archaeological research, the ancient oracle characters inscribed into the tortoise shells and ox bones (*** chia ku wen) were first written with brush and ink, then carved with a knife; the form and spirit of the carved characters attest to this. The tortoise shell and ox bone oracles appeared during the Shang dynasty period (16th-11th century B.C.), so we can date brush pen use to at least three thousand years ago.

Unlike fountain pens, ball-point pens, and other writing instruments with a metal point, a brush pen is made from fine, soft animal hair. The resulting flexibility of the point of the brush pen is perhaps its most outstanding feature. The variance in thickness and heaviness of lines produced by a metal point is extremely limited. A brush pen, however, can be manipulated not only to the left and right on a two-dimensional plane, but can also be raised up and down, creating lines of varying thicknesses; lines in which the brush point is focused either in the center or on the side; heavy, fully-inked lines or sparse, dry lines; and endless other variations. Many aspects of the unique style of Chinese painting and calligraphy evolved due to the special characteristics of the brush pen.

The bursh pens used today can be classified by the type of hair used: goat hair (*** yang hao), "wolf hair" (*** lang hao), and "purple hair" (*** tzu hao). "Wolf hair" brushes are in fact made from weasel hair, and "purple hair" brushes from rabbit hair. Goat hair brushes are soft, flexible, and absorbent. "Purple hair" brushed produce bold, vigorous lines, and are best suited to calligraphy. Sometimes, to achieve a balance between steely and feathery lines, a brush that combines hair from two different types of animals (*** chien hao) is used. Painters and calligraphers usually have several types of brushes on hand to adapt to each individual purpose and personal preference.

Once one has the right brush, ink is the next material required. Ink is made from a mixture of soot and resin, molded into stick form. The three types of materials most commonly used to make ink are pine soot, oil soot, and lacquer soot. Because ink quality has such direct influence on the expressive results of a painting or piece of calligraphy, artists choose inksticks with utmost care. A good inkstick is finely grained and has an even and smooth texture. It is firm and not sticky. It is pure, solid black in color, without murkiness or roughness. The control of hue is crucial to the success of a work in ink.

Paper, a contribution to human progress whose significance can only be understated, was invented by a Chinese of the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 A.D.) named Tsai Lun ***. Seven hundred years later, papermaking technology was absorbed by Islamic countries. It was another 400 years or so before this revolutionary technology reached the European continent through North Africa and Spain, and supplanted the papyrus and parchment in use at the time.

To use ink in the traditional stick form, an inkstone is required. As the name suggests, most inkstones are made of stone. The stone used must be of relatively fine whetstone material to facilitate the grinding of the ink without harming the bristles of the brush pen. Inkstones are very durable items. In ancient times, literati would have poems or their names engraved on their inkstones, to be passed on to future generations as a decorative artifact and keepsake.

Over 30 different producers in Puli *** township of Nantou *** county, Taiwan, make hsuan paper ***, the world-famous paper used for Chinese painting and calligraphy. Recent research and development have made possible the manufacture of a fine quality of hsuan paper from pineapple leaf fiber pulp. This type of handmade paper is soft and flexible, and has just the right degree of absorbency for Chinese brush-and-ink calligraphy and painting, so the art and the material complement each other superbly to produce optimal results.

Much is being done in the Republic of China to not only preserve traditional Chinese culture, but also continually introduce innovations and improvements. While retaining the merits and strengths of the traditional "four treasures of the study," modern technology and materials are being applied to make these "treasures" even more practical and sutied to the needs of the user. The dependence of the Chinese arts of calligraphy and painting on this set of traditional "treasures of the study" to express the thoughts, writing system, life experience, and feelings of the Chinese people has brought forth an eternal, unfading cultural institution.

A brush pen awaiting its next strokes on a carved
jade lotus leaf rest.


Cultural Division, Taipei Economic & Cultural Office in Houston
11 Greenway Plaza, Suite 2910
Houston, Texas, 77046
Tel: (713) 871-0851, Fax: (713) 871-0854, E-mail: houcul@houstoncul.org