First coined in the Northern and Southern Dynasties era (420-589 A.D.), the term "Four Treasures of the Study" (æ–‡æˆ¿å››å®) refers to the four pieces of stationery essential to Chinese calligraphy. Although there had been different definitions of what constitute the four treasures, it is now universally agreed that they comprise the calligraphy brush (ç¬”), ink (å¢¨), paper (çº¸) and ink slab (ç š). The following is a brief introduction to the four treasures:
The earliest traces of the use of the calligraphy brush in China date back to the Yin-Shang Dynasties era (1766-1122 B.C.). The form of the brush had undergone only very minor modifications over the course of time, with the variations coming chiefly in the choice of the shaft and brush head materials. Understandably, the materials used depended on what was available at each place during the different times. Archeological finds showed that the ancient shaft materials had ranged from bamboo, wood, ceramic and animal horns to the more valuable such as ivory, jade, crystal and even precious metals. As for the brush head, materials used had included animal fur, human hair and thatch fibres. Of the animal hair used, those from leopards, tigers, wolves, foxes and even gorillas count among the exotic finds. Interestingly, since ancient times, the Chinese have had the tradition of turning their newborns' hair into calligraphy brushes as keepsakes.
Modern day brushes are typically made from the fur of wild rabbits, goats, weasels or from a combination of these animals' hair. The making of calligraphy brushes is a very demanding form of craftsmanship. For example, only the hair from the rabbit's withers (i.e. top of the shoulders, just behind its neck), the tip of goat's beard and tail, as well as the tip of the weasel's tail are deemed suitable for making brushes. As the rabbit's hair is stiffer and has a sharper tip, brushes made with rabbit hair are generally used for writing bold and vigorous strokes. On the other extreme, goat hair is softer, blunt-tipped and more absorbent, hence they are suitable for soft, flowing strokes.
Depending on the user's style and preference, and whether the brush is to be used for painting or calligraphy, there are different types of brushes for different purposes. Apart from the type of hair used to make the brush head, the other factors to consider when selecting a brush are the shape (or more specifically, the pointedness of the tip), uniformity in the brush hair length, fullness in the brush head and stiffness of the brush hair. Chinese calligraphers traditionally refer to these factors as the "Four Virtues" of the brush (å››å¾·).
Prices of calligraphy brushes can vary widely, depending on their "Four Virtues", the brush sizes and origin of the materials, as well as the craftsmanship of the shafts.
Prior to the invention of man-made ink, the Chinese derived natural ink pigments from graphite fossils. Traditional Chinese ink is primarily made from pine soot. The soot is mixed with resin and other binding agents, compacted into shape, then sold in the form of ink sticks. Interestingly, prior to the Han era (i.e. before 202 B.C.), the compound was sold in the form of spheres!
To prepare the ink for usage, the ink stick would have to be ground with clean water on the ink slab to produce the thick, black liquid pigment. (Clean water is a must in order to prevent impurities from contaminating the ink.) To achieve a good consistency in the liquid ink calls for experience and skills in the processes of water mixing and grinding. Although the consistency desired would depend on the artist's preferences and styles, in general, the objective is to obtain ink which does not halo upon contact with paper.
In the Ming era (1368 – 1644 A.D.), faced with stiff competition, ink stick makers started engraving and embellishing their ink sticks to make their products stand out, thus propagating the trading and collection of artistic ink sticks. In general, a good ink stick must have an even and smooth texture, be free from impurities, is firm but not sticky, and should not be easily soluble in water. Naturally, its hue should be pure and solid black in color. Ink pigments which reflect blue lustre are of premium grade while those displaying red or even white tinges are considered to be inferior quality.
Apart from pine soot, another common source material used to make ink sticks is Tung tree oil soot. Ink derived from pine soot are considered darker in colour and deemed more suitable for calligraphy. Tung tree oil-based ink, on the other hand, is usually used for painting because of its glossiness.
Paper is widely regarded as one of ancient China's four great inventions, alongside gunpowder, typography and the compass. Cai Lun, an Eastern Han Dynasty scholar (25-220 A.D.) was credited for the invention of paper. However, archeological findings revealed that more primitive forms of paper predating the Eastern Han era had already existed.
Different types of paper are used for Chinese calligraphy and Chinese painting. In ancient times, paper was made with either bamboo or wood. Bamboo pulp is less absorbent and glossier than wood pulp. As a result, ink tends to stay on the surface of paper made from bamboo pulp and also appears shinier. Wood-derived paper absorbs ink immediately upon contact and holds the ink well. For this reason, paper made from wood is more prized. The priciest calligraphy paper, Xuan paper (å®£çº¸) produced in Jing County (which was under the jurisdiction of Xuanzhou Prefecture (today's Anhui Province) hence its name), is considered the best because of its soft and fine texture, good tensile strength and durability. However, because it is highly absorbent and smudges easily, it takes a lot of skill and practice to be able to master writing on such paper.
Ink slabs were created around the Yin-Shang Dynasties era to facilitate the grinding of ink sticks to prepare ink. Early versions of the slabs were made from stone, pottery, jade, copper, iron and other hardy materials. Today, it is widely acknowledged that stone is the most suitable material given its inert and hardy characteristics.
A good ink slab is one that is hard, smooth and fine, and boosts the production of ink in the grinding process. The smooth and fine surface is essential to avoid damaging the ink stick (during grinding) and the brush hair. The slab must also stay moist so as to preserve the consistency of the ink. In this regard, ink stones produced in Guangdong Province, known as Duan slabs (ç«¯ç š), and She slabs (æ™ç š) from Anhui Province, are most coveted for their fineness, with the former being the highest priced among ink stones.
It was not until the Ming and Qing era when demand for exquisite ink slabs came about and artisans began producing slabs of various designs and shapes. As a result, in terms of antique collections, ink slabs of quality craftwork from these periods are even more valuable than those from earlier times.
Chinese calligraphers are also very meticulous in the maintenance of ink slabs. After use, all remnants of ink must be carefully washed away so that there would be no dried residue stuck to the slab. When not in use, the slab surface must be kept moist with cool and clean water which is changed frequently and stored away from direct sunlight (to prevent the stones from drying up and thus cracking). This process is affectionately known as "nurturing the slab" (å…»ç š).