Four Treasures of the Study, or Four Friends of the Study, refers to the brush, paper, inkstick and the inkstone used in Chinese calligraphic traditions. These four tools are indispensable to any traditional Chinese scholar, and they play a crucial role in the development of the calligraphic art.
Among all the Four Treasures of Study, the Brush is the most ancient one. The use of the Chinese writing brush can be traced back 6,000 years. Unlike conventional pens with a metal point, a brush pen is made from fine, soft animal hair. Therefore, the 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.
According to the type of hair used, traditional Chinese writing brushes fall into three categories: goat hair, wolf hair, and purple hair. Goat hair brushes are soft, flexible, and absorbent. Wolf hair brushes are actually made from weasel hair and purple hair brushes from rabbit hair. Purple hair brushes produce bold lines and are best suited to calligraphy. Sometimes, to achieve a balance between steely and feathery lines, a brush that combines hair from two different types of animals is used. In most cases, painters and calligraphers have several types of brushes on hand to adapt to individual purposes and preferences.
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. Such stroke will add vigor and interest to the whole calligraphic work.
The inkstick is the pigment of Chinese painting and calligraphy. The traditional inkstick is made from a mixture of soot and resin, molded into inkstick form. The three types of soot most commonly used pine, oil, and lacquer soot. A good inkstick is finely grained and has an even and smooth texture. It is firm and not sticky. It is pure, solid black in color, without murkiness or roughness.
To use the traditional ink, an inkstone is required. As the name suggests, most inkstones are made of stone. The stone used must be of relatively fine whetstone materials so the hair of the brush pen will not be damaged. A little water is added to the inkstone, and the inkstick is ground. The result is ink, and the inkstone acts as an inkwell. Inkstones are extremely durable. In ancient times, artisans would have their names or other words engraved on their inkstones to be passed on to future generations.