Four Treasures of the Study (or Four Friends of the Study) refers to brush, ink, paper and ink stone used in Chinese and other East Asian calligraphic traditions. The “four treasures of the study” plays a key role in the development of the calligraphic art.
The Chinese writing brush is made of goat’s hair, rabbit hair or the tail hairs of weasel. Such a brush is soft and has good elasticity. Soaked in ink, it has what is known as “capillarity”, which combined with the strong ink permeability of a special Chinese paper, making the strokes in a calligraphic work more vivid, varied and pretty.
The use of the Chinese writing brush can be traced back 6,000 years. In the early years, the brush was very simple. It seems that the pictures, symbols and characters on ancient pottery, painted in red and black, were done with brush strokes.
The brushes from Anhui, Jiangsu, Jiangxi and Henan provinces are the most famous in the country. The biggest one was made by a factory in Tianjin in 1979. It is 157 cm long including the 20-cm-long hair end, and it weighs five kg. It can soak up one kg of ink. On the morning of September 14, 1979, calligrapher Yang Xuanting from Beĳing wrote four characters meaning “Long Live the Motherland” on a piece of Xuan paper 100 cm long and 150 cm wide with this brush to mark the 30th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
In ancient times, the brush was made of the hair of a newborn baby. More than 1,400 years ago, an old woman from southern China invented a brush with a newborn’s hair inside and rabbit hair outside. It is said that it was a favorite brush of Xiao Ziyun, a famous calligrapher of the time. Even today, some people ask writing brush manufacturers to make a brush with the hair of a newborn baby. But they do not use it, and keep it as a souvenir, wishing their child will be inspired after he or she sees it after growing up and become determined to be a man or woman of letters in the future.
Paper, the compass, gunpowder and printing are the four great inventions of China. It is said that paper was invented by Cai Lun (?-121) of the Eastern Han Dynasty. The History of the Eastern Han Dynasty explains clearly the old paper-making technique. In the second half of the 20th century, ancient paper discovered in Shaanxi and Gansu provinces showed that paper made of plant fiber was used during the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 25), earlier than the Eastern Han Dynasty.
The paper mostly used by calligraphers and painters is Xuan paper from Xuancheng and Jingxian in Anhui Province. This type of paper is made of bark of the wingceltis tree and rice straw. After being treated with lime and bleached in the sun, the fibers are made into pulp. Xuan paper is white, delicate, soft, vigorous and resistant to insects. It keeps colors for a long time. Owing to the paper’s strong absorption quality, the ink on the paper demonstrates a variety of appearances. If a brush soaked in watery ink moves quickly, the stroke will be dark in the center, and the ink around it will show lighter layers. If a brush soaked in thick ink moves quickly, there will be some white streaks in the stroke, reminiscent of a waterfall. Such stroke will add vigor and interest to the whole calligraphic work.
The traditional ink used for producing calligraphic works and paintings is special too. It is made by rubbing a rectangular or round ink stick on an ink slab with a little water. The ink stick is made of the soot of Tung oil, coal or pine wood, animal glue and perfume. It is viscous but does not coagulate in lumps. Excellent calligraphic works executed hundreds of years ago are still bright today. The strokes done with thick, thin 41 or dried ink are different. Some are black and some are light black. In the eyes of the viewer, they express different weights.
Ink slabs appeared in the third or fourth century, after the use of ink balls and ink sticks. A similar device had emerged earlier for rubbing dyestuffs or foodstuffs. The earliest rubbing device intact today is some 6,000 years old. There are many ink slabs that date back to the third century, some demonstrating excellent workmanship. There are old ink slabs shaped like a turtle or stringed instrument. Today, many people collect and study ancient ink slabs.
Most ink slabs are made of stone, but there are also porcelain, pottery, bronze and iron ink slabs. Among ancient stone ink slabs, there is a jade-like one which is transparent, and ingeniously and delicately made. The ink rubbed in it cannot freeze even in the coldest weather. Famous stone ink slabs include the Lu ink slab from Shandong Province, Duan ink slab from Guangdong Province, She ink slab from Anhui Province and Tao ink slab from Gansu Province.