Ink brushes are mostly made of bamboo, some of which spot bamboo, rhino horn, ivory, gold and silver, making them crafts of art. The animal hairs for making the brush are categorized into soft hair and stiff hair, of which soft hairs are mainly goat hairs and stiff hairs rabbit ridge hairs and weasel tail hairs. There is also a mixture of soft hair and stiff hair. The longest part of an ink brush is called Feng (front), the tip of the brush, surrounded by a bunch of shorter hairs. An ink brush of superior quality possesses the merits of pointed tip, neatly cut, perfect plumpness, and resilience. During the Tang Dynasty and later Song Dynasty, Xuanzhou Prefecture became the best-known production and manufacture center for ink brushes in China and all ink brushes produced there were of top-notch quality and invaluable. In the Ming Dynasty, Huzhou’s ink brushes gained prominence and gradually took the place of Xuanzhou’s ink brushes, which are still popular nowadays.
There are two kinds of ink, one is the pine-soot ink made from ashes burnt from pine trees, which is only suitable for writing as it is dark black in color, poor in lustre and colloidally light; the other the lampblack ink made from the smoke of burnt animal or vegetable oil, shiny black and lustrous. Lampblack ink is mostly applied in Chinese painting, among which colored painting occasionally applies pine-soot ink. The ink applied in Chinese painting are processed ink sticks. You can choose ink sticks based on their color: ink sticks shimmering a green and purple lustre are of the first water, black lustre the second best, and the red and yellow lustre or the white lustre the worst. Ink sticks are also classified by the multiple purposes they serve.
A distinctive art of Chinese handicrafts, rice paper features flossy texture, clean and polished surface, stale-proof quality and diverse charm, thus hailed as “national treasure”.
The rice paper for calligraphy and painting originates in the ancient Xuanzhou County, today’s Jing County in Anhui Province, which is how rice paper, or the Xuan paper, got its name. Xuan paper is classified into two major types: the Shengxuan (literally “Raw Xuan”) and the Shuxuan (literally “Ripe Xuan”). As Shengxuan is highly absorbent, it serves as the main material for calligraphy and painting. The best way to store Shengxuan paper is to preserve it for a long time because the newly-produced Shengxuan paper is overly bleached. Long-preserved Shengxuan paper takes on soft lustre and is more charismatic with inks and pigments applied. In order to make Shengxuan paper achieve the same quality as the long-preserved paper, it is advisable to air-dry it for a while. Shuxuan paper, with potassium alum worked into during production, does not bleed into other colors even though it has absorbed water, and various kinds of Shuxuan paper can be produced with diverse techniques applied, such as dyeing and gold sprinkling. Shuxuan paper is not suitable for long-term preservation but applicable to claborate-style painting, rather than freehand brushworks. Banshuxuan paper, literally semi-ripe Xuan paper, is made from processed Shengxuan paper, its water absorption capacity lying between Shengxuan paper and Shuxuan paper.
Dating from the Western Han Dynasty, ink stones have been cherished to the utmost by Chinese literati generation after generation. There are four kinds of ink stones, known as the “Four Famous Ink Stones”: Duan ink stone, She ink stone, Tao ink stone and Chengni ink stone. Ink stones epitomize a miscellany of stories in each dynasty regarding culture, economy and even aesthetic consciousness. For modern people, ancient ink stones have converted from practical products to works of art, thus also creating their unique value of collection and financial management.
How to keep ink stones?
First of all, avoid light: if the ink stone is placed on a desk by the window, avoid direct sunlight, otherwise it will show signs of dryness and the ink stone box will crack easily after being exposed to the sun for a long time. When enjoying the ink stone, it is better to spread a felt carpet on the table and the ink stone should not be in any contact with metal and glass objects, let alone overlapping them, for fear of scratching. When applying wax to the ink stone, some people smear all over its body with wax, some with vegetable oil and some foam ink, believing that this keeps the ink stone in good repair, but these practices are not appropriate. Wax can be applied around the ink stone, but moderately and thin on its bottom. Applying wax to the ink slab where people make ink by grinding the ink stone is most avoided. Smearing vegetable oil on the ink stone is also inappropriate, because vegetable oil is slow-drying grease and the ink stone surface itself is greasy and easy to attract dusts, which will make it filthy and give off a strange smell or mildew.