The Four Treasures of the Study
The four components parts of penmanship in ancient China, sometimes referred to as 'the four treasures of the study' ("study" in this context taken to mean a scholar's or an artist's work room, or library), is a reference not to the stylistic aspects of applying ink to paper, i.e., the art of calligraphy, but rather, to what might be termed the 'tools of the trade' of a calligrapher: the ink stick, the ink stone, the writing brush and paper. These four penmanship "tools" were employed by scholars throughout ancient China years before the art of penmanship would turn inwardly, becoming narcissistically enamored of itself, as it were, i.e., enamored of the stylistic aspects of applying ink to paper, thus creating what came to be called calligraphy. A brief history of each of the component parts that made up penmanship in ancient China is presented below.
The ink stick was the earliest widespread form of ink found in China. To dispel any confusion, let it be said immediately that the ink stick was not an ancient form of ballpoint pen, or lead pencil, it was simply ink in solid form that had to be ground – with the help of an aptly termed ink stick grinding stone, or ink stone, for short – into a fine powder (ink stones came in varying degrees of coarseness) and mixed with water, then applied to a surface (typically paper) with the help of a writing brush (note that this connects all four of the treasured elements of ancient Chinese penmanship into a single, unified purpose).
One of the earliest uses of "ink" in China is the inscriptions on so-called oracle bones (large flat pieces of animal bone used as a writing "canvas") belonging to the Shang (BC 1700-1027) Dynasty period. The script on the oracle bones was written with an ink made of naturally occurring carbon graphite (note that the "lead" of the common lead pencil is carbon graphite, and the Greek name for "graphite" itself, graphein, means "to draw/write"... think of the word "graffiti") mixed with vermilion (bright red mercuric sulfide, typically used as a pigment – eg., the color cinnabar, aka Chinese red, is reddish-orange).
After the Chinese invention of paper during the Han (BC 206 – 220) Dynasty, graphites were no longer used to make ink. Instead, another ink, more suitable for writing on paper, was developed from charcoal (i.e., from the embers of a wood fire). This type of raw material for the production of ink was the forerunner of later types of ink that would appear in ancient China, including the ink stick. More than a thousand years would pass between the discovery of a primitive ink source in the form of naturally occurring carbon graphite and the development of easily reproduced, consistent quality ink that was man-made, albeit, of natural ingredients.
During the Song (960-1279) Dynasty, ink made from the soot of charred pine trees and pine-tree resin, as well as from the charred embers of other wood types – collectively called soot ink, or lampblack – was mixed with a binding material (typically a paste made of dried, finely-ground animal hide or bone, spices, and minerals), then pressed into a wooden form and allowed to dry. The resulting "sticks" of ink, ready to be ground 'on location' (in the calligrapher's study, or beside the painter's easel at lakeside, etc.) – and to the calligrapher's/ painter's desired degree of fineness (the finer the ink dust, the glossier the end result, glossiness being a quality prized especially among calligraphers) – came into use throughout China. Many of the greatest calligraphic works from the hand of Chinese masters stem from the Song Dynasty period, thanks in no small part to the development of the ink stick.
During the Ming (1368-1644) Dynasty, ink stick production became a veritable cottage industry, attaining its golden period. Advanced methods of producing ink sticks with tung oil (aka Chinawood oil) were widely used. The appearance of Jijin ink sticks, which could be made in large batches – and which were individually decorated and packaged in various assortments in artistically embellished "cigar boxes" in a manner that would be the envy of a modern-day maker of the most exquisite, most exclusive fountain pen sets – were greatly welcomed by writers, calligraphers and painters alike.
Later still, during the Qing (1644-1911) Dynasty, the production of ink sticks became a royal concern, since the Qing Dynasty emperors of the period beginning with Emperor Kangxi and ending with Emperor Qianlong were patron saints of the arts, and especially of the art of calligraphy, owing, no doubt, to the fact that the subject matter of the calligrapher was often famous literary works, including poems and couplets – both ancient and contemporary (the latter might well be in praise of the emperor himself). Calligraphers were perhaps the most feted artists of the period in question. Moreover, calligraphy had long since become a form of painting in and of itself.
The production of ink sticks gradually declined toward the end of the Qing Dynasty, especially after the reign (CE 1820-1850) of Emperor Daoguang, partly due to the influence of Western culture (bottled ink was readily available in the West), but also partly due to the fact that China, due again to Western influence, was rapidly being pulled into a more modern era, where calligraphy – and the calligrapher – was no longer as revered.
The ink stone, aka ink slab, was considered by ancient Chinese scholars to be the most important of the four components of penmanship, since a quality ink stone was the key to producing the desired type of ink; a quality ink stone was a highly prized possession. The ink stone had a roughened area (in varying degrees of coarseness) for grinding the ink stick into powder, as well as a basin, or inkwell, in which to mix the ground, or powdered, ink with water, creating liquid ink. Only small amounts of ink could be produced at a time, since it evaporated rather quickly. The material used to make an ink stone was varied: pottery, brick, metal, lacquerware, porcelain, and natural stone, the latter of which was the most common.
An infinite variety of natural stone types were employed, and they could be found both on mountains and in and alongside rivers all across China. Since the demand for ink stones existed everywhere across the country – albeit perhaps more markedly in some areas than in others – ink stones were produced locally all across China; almost every province could boast of its own specialty, such as the Duan Ink Stone of the city of Zhaoqing in Guangdong Province, the Xi Ink Stone of Anhui Province, the Lu Ink Stone of Shandong Province, the Longwei Ink Stone of Jiangxi Province and the Chengni Ink Stone of Shanxi Province, to name some of the most prominent.
The following qualities were important in choosing a prospective stone to make into an ink stone: it should be of the right size (neither too small nor too bulky); it should be of an interesting composition (eg., semi-translucent), color and shape; and it should be of a non-porous material, such that it would not absorb liquids. The latter was important for two reasons: the stone should not absorb the ink, of course, and it would need to be cleaned regularly (usually in a mixture of lukewarm water – never in hot or cold water, as that could crack the stone – and tea or lotus leaves). The chosen stones were then further shaped and ground, usually with the addition of decorative patterns – often containing mini-landscapes, where the inkwell itself might be made to resemble a pond surrounded by a garden, as in a Chinese scholar garden.
The best of the ink stones that remain from the heyday of ink stone production in China are today collectors' items, and are bought by connoisseurs the world over, especially the more artistic creations as well as ink stones that have a "pedigree", i.e., which were known to have been used by a famous author, calligrapher, or painter, though most of the latter are found in museums dedicated to those very artists. But even in their own heyday, an extraordinary ink stone was treasured not just as a handicraft article, or tool, but as a talisman, or good luck charm, and a thing of beauty. It was surely this personal attachment aspect of the ink stone which set it apart, elevating it to the rank of supreme importance among the four component parts of penmanship in ancient China.
The history of the writing brush can be traced back to some 3000 years ago, or around BCE 1000, if not earlier. Even though no exemplars of these earliest brushes exist today (brushes, up even to recent times, were generally made of animal hair (some are still), a material that biodegrades relatively rapidly – otherwise we would all be wading around in the hair of mammoths, T-Rexes, grizzly bears, etc.), there is ample evidence from the historical record that points to their existence, which we now know to have been prior to the Western Zhou (BC 1027-771) Dynasty, from the depictions on Western Zhou pottery and from oracle bone inscriptions that stem from the Shang (BC 1700-1027) Dynasty.
Subsequent historical records concerning the writing brush inform us that it was widely used to write on silk, as well as on pieces of bamboo and wood during the Eastern Zhou (BC 770-221) Dynasty. The earliest exemplar of an extant writing brush stems from a "mummified" (i.e., sealed in a tomb) discovery near the city of Suizhou in present-day Hubei Province – in the heart of central China proper – namely, the archeological site known as the Tomb of Zenghouyi. From various sources, this brush has been dated to the Spring and Autumn (BC 770-476) Period of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (the Spring and Autumn Period was the first half, as it were, of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, the Warring States (BC 475-221) Period being the second half).
Other excavations that unearthed ancient-period writing brushes include the following: a Warring States find in the Zuojia Mountains near the city of Changsha, Hunan Province; a Qin State find in the Qin State Tomb of Fangmatan, near the city of Tianshui, Gansu Province (note that the Qin State (of the Warring States Period) would eventually lead to the formation of the Qin (BC 221-207) Dynasty); a Qin Dynasty find discovered in the village of Shuihudi, Yunmeng County, Hubei Province; several Western Han (BC 206-009) Dynasty finds, including at the Tomb of Mawangdui, the city of Changsha, Hunan Province, another in the Fenghuang Mountains of Jianglin County, Hubei Province, and yet another near the city of Guyuan in the northeastern corner of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, near the westward-pointing "goose neck" of Heilongjiang Province; and finally, a Western Jin (CE 265-316) Dynasty find near the village of Wuwei, Dunhuang, Gansu Province.
The above-mentioned writing brushes are all rare and precious instruments belonging to the art of calligraphy, and thus form a part of the cultural heritage not only of China, but of the world.
As one of the four great inventions of ancient China, paper has contributed immeasurably to the diffusion of knowledge throughout China as well as to the exchange of knowledge and ideas between cultures. In earlier times, before the advent of paper, various media had been used to record simple information, or data. One of the earliest was the practice of tying a knot in a cord or a piece of string as a way of making note of something, such as the number of baskets of grain that a merchant might sell on credit to a given customer, or how many sacks of grain to purchase the next time one's supplier came around. Tortoise shell and, later, bone shards (flat surfaces of large animal bones, aka oracle bones) were used as a writing surface, and of course metal plates such as bronze were used, where the data was etched into the metal's surface. But none of these media facilitated the art of writing, but rather could only be used to record, in symbolic or pictographic terms, the barest of essentials; they did not lend themselves to, for example, storytelling, the recording of a poem, etc.
It was only when paper arrived on the scene that complex writing, capable of recording a poem or of telling a nuanced story, became widespread, and paper itself would give rise to the improvement of ink, since older forms of ink were not suitable to paper. Paper was originally invented in Egypt, says the history books, around BCE 3000, yet this form of paper – termed cyperous papyrus, or papyrous antiquorium, by the Greeks – bears little resemblance to the paper that would be independently invented in China three thousand years later, in 105, circa, by Cai Lun, Chief Eunuch of Emperor Ho Ti of the Eastern Han (25-220) Dynasty – which paper, in contrast topapyrous antiquorium, resembles modern-day paper.
Whereas Papyrous antiquorium was made of reed-like grass that was cut lengthwise in thin strips, soaked in water until soft, then formed into a mat that was beaten flat, and finally sun-dried for use as "paper" (a very thick and coarse paper indeed!), the paper developed by Emperor Ho Ti's Chief Eunuch was made from plants that were beaten until the individual fibers separated, and these fibers, together with the plant pulp, were thereafter mixed together in a large vat of water such that the fibers crisscrossed each other, producing a very thin, reinforced mat. A screen was thereafter slipped into the vat and the thin "porridge" of pulp and crisscrossing fibers was gently lifted out of the water and placed on a flat surface to dry in the sun. When completely dry, this thin film of fibrous plant "porridge" had become a sheet of paper that was quite strong, and which lent itself perfectly to the application of ink, though there would go some time before scholars would arrive at a better ink medium for writing on paper.
Each of the four components parts of penmanship in ancient China had its unique – and indispensable – role to play in the ancient Chinese art of penmanship, and, indeed, in the art and practice of communication in general (across both space and time), for one can draw a direct line between the nuanced communication – however simple, initially – that was made possible by the development of the ink stick, the ink stone, the writing brush and paper, and the widespread and instantaneous communication potential that lies in a modern computer.
I updated this article on February 27, 2014
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