Oddly enough, the rice paper that is so often connected to Chinese paintings and artwork is not usually made with rice. Most rice paper is actually made from a plant that is related to papyrus, and is known as the “rice paper plant” in China and other parts of Asia. Some other kinds of rice paper are made with paper mulberry pulp, and some are in fact made with rice straw pulp. There is also another kind of edible rice paper in Vietnamese cooking, but that’s another product altogether.
Rice paper is very smooth compared to wood-pulp paper, and it is extremely durable. Pieces of rice paper with ink calligraphy have been found that are thousands of years old, and they have resisted mold or other damage over the centuries. That’s one of the reasons why we have so many excellent examples of ancient Chinese artwork today.
Many different forms of Chinese artwork are done on rice paper, but it is Chinese calligraphy that is usually associated with this kind of paper medium. Beautiful brush strokes in ink are used to create artwork in characters rather than images. Various scripts are used to create various styles to these pieces of artwork, though sometimes the subtle differences are lost on Western viewers.
The content of Chinese calligraphy artwork is usually poetry, and the themes can be just about anything. Some pieces are done as descriptive prose rather than poetry, but it depends on the style of the artist. There are even some famous pieces written as letters to another person.
In traditional Chinese calligraphy work, a fine-tipped brush with animal hair bristles is used and the ink is ground by hand. A solid inkstick is ground down on an ink stone and mixed with water to get that perfect black ink. It’s an age-old tradition that people are still practicing today.
The oldest examples of this kind of calligraphy art are known as the “Three Rarities of Calligraphy” and they date to the 300-400 CE era. Ironically, the artists all belong to the same family. “Timely Clearing after Snowfall” was done by by Wang Xizhi, “Mid-Autumn Festival” was written by Wang Xianzhi and Wang Xun composed “Letter to Boyuan”. All three pieces are currently on display at the Palace Museum in Beijing.
Calligraphy isn’t the only kind of Chinese artwork you’ll find done on rice paper though. Ink paintings of all subjects are also part of Chinese art tradition. Images of animals and landscapes are particularly popular though many famous paintings show people in scenes of everyday life.
Modern sheets of rice paper are easy enough to find in art supply stores, and if you are thinking of trying your hand at ink calligraphy, you should try to use rice paper for the best results.