What does it take to write beautiful Chinese calligraphy? Any aspiring calligrapher, scholar, or even poet for that matter, needs certain tools of the trade to practice their art. The “Four Treasures of Study” (文房四寶wén fáng sì bǎo) are the foundational implements of written Chinese: brush, ink, paper, and ink-stone. In ancient times, each was very precious, and even now the “Four Treasures” are treated reverentially by serious scholars and artists alike.
The “Four Treasures” idiom can be traced back to the Southern and Northern Dynasties, (420-589 AD), though the tools themselves are far older. Today many people are given the “Four Treasures” upon high school or college graduation.
1. Brush 筆 (bǐ)
The brush is the oldest “Treasure” that archeologists have found in China. Although the oldest existing brushes have been dated to the Han Dynasty (202 BC–220 AD), most scholars believe writing brushes were invented hundreds of years earlier. Brushes were usually made of biodegradable materials (animal hair for the bristles, and bamboo for the body), so the most primitive brushes will most likely never be found.
Even in modern times, the highest-quality brushes are still usually made of animal hair, and are classified by their size and stiffness. Soft brushes are usually made from goat hair, while hair for hard brushes is taken from weasel tails. Hair from different animals can be combined to create different brush characteristics and textures.
2. Ink 墨 (mò)
In ancient times, ink was rarely stored as a liquid. Instead, it was sold and transported in solid form: ink-sticks. To use an ink-stick, the writer simply ground it against an ink-stone and added water. The oldest ink-sticks found also date to the Han Dynasty; previously, ink had been made of naturally-occurring minerals like graphite or cinnabar. Han Dynasty ink was made mostly of charcoal, and the stick held together with glue and pine resin. Modern ink, of course, comes in a variety of textures and colors.
Since ink is mostly sold in bottles today, ink-sticks are now purchased for novelty or as an elegant gift. Ink-sticks can be intricately carved and made almost ornamental, and sometimes perfumes or fragrances are added to the resin for added opulence.
3. Paper 紙 (zhǐ)
In 100 A.D., imperial eunuchs made better quality paper than Europeans were able to muster for the next thousand years. Chinese paper was produced by beating plants until the individual fibers separated, adding water to the mix so that the fibers wove together, and screening the mixture to dry it and produce a mat of paper. This ancient paper was strong and long lasting, and the highest quality paper absorbed ink readily. While in modern times it’s easy to take paper for granted, high quality calligraphy paper was an indispensable tool for the ancient scholar.
4. Ink-stone 硯 (yàn)
Since ink was used in stick form, an ink-stone was a small well where the stick was ground and mixed with water. An ink-stone was frequently considered the most important treasure, since different rock grains and textures produced differing qualities of ink. Not any rock would do; if the material was too porous, it might absorb the ink. If the ink well was too shallow, the ink would evaporate or dry up before it could be used. The ink-stones of famous writers and calligraphers (or copies of their ink-stones) are highly prized today.
Some calligraphy eschews these traditional tools entirely; consider the benefits of foot calligraphy.
Images courtesy of Wikipedia and Chinasprout.