Museum Hours
Thu: 1 PM–8 PM
Fri–Mon: 10 AM–5 PM
Tue–Wed: Closed
200 Larkin Street
San Francisco, CA 94102

The Four Treasures and Other Utensils for a Scholar’s Desk

Writing was so valued by the Chinese that they called the most essential implements for the art The Four Treasures–the brush, ink stick, ink stone, and paper.

Writing was so valued by the Chinese that they called the most essential implements for the art The Four Treasures–the brush, ink stick, ink stone, and paper. Here is shown a fancy, jade-handled brush, a small stick of ink resting on the edge of the rectangular ink stone, and a roll of paper with a section stretched out and held flat with weights. These tools were used by both painters and calligraphers.

Other objects in this picture include (from left to right) a brush holder with brushes of different sizes and stiffnesses, a small green bowl for washing brushes, a water dropper in the shape of a fish, a blue-and-white porcelain brush rest in the shape of a mountain, a pair of carved seals and a container of red seal paste. To use the ink and brush, artists or calligraphers needed all these tools. Some were designed to hold or pour water in order to grind and dissolve the ink stick, to rinse the brushes, and to make different tones by diluting the ink. When a painting or piece of calligraphy was finished, the artist would sign it and stamp one or more seals beneath the signature. A pair of carved seals and a container of red seal paste are in the right foreground. Having beautiful tools for painting was not just a pleasure in itself, it also indicated a respect for the art of painting and calligraphy. Consequently, beautiful containers of ceramic, jade, bamboo, lacquer, or metal were created specifically for use in painting and writing.

The Brush

The brush is very flexible and versatile. It comes to a fine point so that it can produce very thin lines, but it is also fat enough to make wider lines and dots which was useful in writing characters as well as in painting. To make a brush tip, one or several kinds of animal hair may be used including rabbit, wolf, goat, badger, and even the whiskers of mice. Brushmakers start with a long central core of stiffer hair and then bundle around it a mantle of shorter hairs, which are in turn surrounded by an outer layer of longer hair. The long, outer hairs come to a sharp point while the circle of shorter hairs in the middle of the brush provide a well to hold ink. This brush tip is usually inserted into a hollow bamboo tube, but sometimes into more elaborate handles of jade, lacquer, or even gold. Over the centuries many variations were made on this basic construction. The size of the brush as well as the quantity and textures of the hair used varies according to the kind of lines the painter desires to produce. Brushes vary in size from tiny, fairly stiff wolf hair brushes for outlining to immense resilient brushes for large calligraphic scrolls. Long tapering brushes are good for swirling movements; short stumpy ones produce a blunt line with the understated impression favored by some of the scholar painters. Brushes of soft rabbit or goat hair are suitable for washes, and when thin, for the steady even lines of architecture.

The Paper

The next important material for the calligrapher and painter, paper, was invented in China during the Western Han dynasty (206 BCE–CE 9).  The Chinese were avid record keepers and needed a lightweight, thin, inexpensive material to write on. Early calligraphers carved records in stone, cast them in bronze, or wrote them on bamboo strips or silk, but all of these materials were too expensive or too big and bulky for China’s exploding documentary and literary output. It was not until the Tang dynasty (618-906) that painters began to use paper on occasion, and it was not used extensively for pictures until the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368). (In fact, most early painting had been done on silk.)

After this time, scholars who painted for the sheer pleasure of it came to prefer paper, viewing the material as a natural extension of their role as literary men accomplished in calligraphy. Calligraphers and painters first made paper from rags, but eventually used many kinds of vegetable fiber including tree bark, grass, hemp, and grain husk. (The rice paper sold to foreigners was a rather poor quality paper not used by calligraphers or painters.) Paper used for brushwork can be either sized or unsized. Papermakers sized paper by coating one side with alum to partially seal the paper’s pores, thus making it somewhat smoother and less absorbent. Sized paper was preferred for dry brush, contrasting ink, or fine line work. Unsized paper, in contrast, was used for wet ink painting of the expressive style.

The Ink Stick

In addition to brushes and paper, the artist needed a medium, in this case ink. Ink was made from soot mixed with glue and formed into hard sticks. The finely ground soot produces the color while the glue both holds the stick together and acts as an adhesive to bind the ink to the paper or silk. Pine soot, from the inner wood of the tree, produced the best all-around ink, but other kinds of soot and various animal glues have been used. Ink compounders have experimented over the ages with different materials, sometimes adding such unlikely ingredients as pig’s gall and oxhorn marrow, powdered pearls, and jade dust. In the Song dynasty (960–1279) an ink maker discovered that when he mixed tung oil-lamp soot, which had not previously made a good ink, with pine it produced an exceptionally deep, glossy, black ink. Sometimes scholars tried to make their own ink (Artist Su Dongpo (1036-1101) almost burned his house down during one attempt.) Most ink makers guarded their recipes carefully, never writing them down and passing them on only to their apprentices. Therefore, the recipes for making some special inks have been totally lost such as that for a once-popular bluish ink.

The Ink Stone

To use the ink stick, painters must grind it with water on a fine grained stone. The ink stone became one of the Four Treasures of the scholar. The quality of the stone’s grain was of the greatest importance, but stones were treasured also for their color and beauty. They were cut and carved so that they had a flat surface for grinding, perhaps with a slight lip around the edge, and a depression to hold the water and ground ink. Sometimes they were decoratively carved as well. Fascinated with all aspects of ink painting, scholars discussed the merits of different inks and ink stones, how much water to use when mixing ink, and like topics in great detail.