Writing brush, ink stick, paper and ink slab are known as “the four treasures of the study”. They are all indispensable tools for Chinese calligraphy and Chinese painting. We can easily tell how Chinese calligraphers and painters value and treasure them from the name. Despite the evolution of the four tools, it is believed that no Chinese artwork can be a masterpiece without using the traditional four treasures. Other oriental nations such as Japan have inherited this Chinese tradition. Maybe that’s why Japanese calligraphy and Japanese painting resemble Chinese calligraphy and Chinese painting.
Different from the pen we use for writing, the “penpoint” of the Chinese writing brush is soft and big. It is usually made of animal hair. When the top of the Chinese writing brush is dipped in the ink, it sops up the ink and is ready to use. The amount of ink absorbed is important to Chinese calligraphy. Chinese calligraphers usually have their preferences for the type of brushes to fit their own calligraphy styles and the nature of a particular task. The animal hair used is critical to the quality of the Chinese writing brush, but the material for the brush body, usually bamboo, is relatively less important.
Ink sticks can be regarded as ink in solid state. Getting ink from the hard ink stick requires some physical labor, so ancient Chinese calligraphers had young boy attendants help them with this task. The procedure is like this: firstly, the ink stick is rubbed against the ink slab to generate ink powder; secondly, water is added to the ink powder to form the ink. One advantage of doing so is that you can easily adjust the density of the ink by changing the amount of water or ink powder.
Paper was invented by Cai Lun in the Chinese Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). The most famous paper used for Chinese calligraphy and Chinese painting is rice paper, also named as Xuan paper after its origin – the ancient Xuan city.
Ink slab is the container used in Chinese calligraphy and painting for grinding dry ink (ink stick) and mixing it with water. Most of ink slabs are made of stone, but other materials such as pottery, brick and tile are also widely used.