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The Four Treasures of the Study

    For millennia, Chinese scholars needed just four objects.

    Today, like scholars elsewhere in the world, the Chinese rely on laptops, tablets and – if needed – pens and paper.

    But these ancient four primary objects (often with another five secondary objects) are still used for Chinese calligraphy.

    Let’s look at what they were.

    What are the four treasures of the study?

    The four treasures of the study are the four indispensable tools that every Chinese official, scholar and artist needed before the twentieth century.

    The term came into use during the Southern and Northern dynasties (420 AD – 589 AD).

    The original Chinese (wénfángsìbǎo [文房四宝]) is sometimes translated as: four gems of the scholar’s studio, four gems of the study, four treasures of the scholar’s room or variations of these.

    The four treasures all enable scholars to write and paint. They are: 

    1.Brush

    The Chinese writing or calligraphy brush (笔) has thousands of years of history.

    It can be made of wood or bamboo, and has different animal fur at its head. The type of fur (or furs) used depends on the needs of the brush. There are ‘hard’ furs (such as weasel) and ‘soft’ furs (such as goat). 

    The handles of the brushes can be made from wood, horn or bamboo. And the sizes of the brushes vary greatly, depending on whether the user wants to write a large or small piece of work.

    Photo of 3 different Chinese calligraphy brushes at different sizes

    2. Paper

    Two main types of paper were traditionally used in China:

    • Raw paper: This is untreated paper that has a soft and absorbent texture and structure, not unlike blotting or rice paper
    • Mature paper: A treated paper that is not very absorbent and – in some cases – even shiny

    There are many other kinds of paper, too. Different scholars have different preferences, according to particular style of painting or calligraphy they are using – or the different occasion it will be used for.

    Before paper was invented, silk and bamboo were written on.  

    3. Ink

    Traditionally, Chinese ink was made from burnt wood and animal glue. One of the most popular types of ink called ‘Pine Smoke of yellow Mountain’. 

    After it has been created, it is left in solid long shapes. These ink sticks can then be prepared by being ground down in ink-stones (see below). The result is a black substance much thicker than the ink we are familiar with in the West.  

    Nowadays, Chinese ink can be bought pre-made in plastic cartons. This substance isn’t quite the same as ink created in the traditional way, but it forms a good substitute, especially for practice. 

    4. Ink-stone

    The ink-stone (or inkwell) can vary in exact size and shape, but in general it’s a flat object with a rounded hollow centre about the size of a hand. 

    Ink sticks can be ground down into the inkstone and then kept by the paper’s side. The process of grinding the ink is itself seen as an important part of the ritual involved in calligraphy.

    Ink stones are often prized objects, sometimes like pieces of art themselves, that can be stored in decorative boxes.

    What other treasures of the study are there?

    Besides the four primary treasures, there are five secondary ones. The secondary ones aren’t as essential as the primary ones. However, they are still very useful for scholars: 

    • Brush-holder: This is a small wooden object where the ends of brushes can be rested on during use. It helps prevent ink staining surfaces nearby.
    • Brush-hanger: This is a small wooden frame where brushes can be hung from when not in use. It helps keep the tips dry
    • Brush-rinsing pot: A small pot with a hole on top. Brushes are dipped into this to remove ink
    • Seal: A seal is a kind of stamp used for artists or scholars to give a signature to their work.
    • Seal-ink: This is a special red ink, different from regular writing/painting ink
    • Paper weight: Made from all different kinds of materials – jade, wood, stone, etc, and sometimes with decorative detailed carved into them

    The four treasures vs the Four Treasuries

    The four treasures are not to be confused with the Four Treasuries.

    The Four Treasuries are a famous compilation of literary and history texts created in the 18th century. This was a project was ordered by the Qing Dynasty emperor Qianlong (1711 – 1799).

    The ‘four treasuries’ its title refers to are:

    • Classics
    • History
    • Philosophy
    • Miscellaneous literary works

    It is an anthology of 3,450 complete works and 6,750 commentaries, which took ten years and 36,000 manuscripts to complete. 

    It was aimed at celebrating Chinese culture. However, during its compiling, 2,000 works which the Manchu administration considered ‘harmful’ were destroyed. These works are now lost forever.