A brief history of Chinese and Japanese Brushes

Ancient Origins of Chinese Brushes

Perhaps more than any of the other Four Treasures of the Studio, the Brush has the longest confirmed history in China. Brushes have been recovered from late-Zhou (c. 500 BCE) archaeological sites that do not differ substantially in design from those used today. More than this, markings on pottery as far back as the Yang Shao (c. 5000-2750 BCE) culture indicate the use of pliable instruments for the application of pigments. This preference for flexible writing instruments would continue through the Shang (c. 1600-1027 BCE) and Zhou (1027-481 BCE): evidence suggests that brush-like instruments often traced many oracle bone and bronze inscriptions before they were completed. Before paper manufacture became widespread, brushes were applied to wooden and bamboo slips, as well as for writing and painting on silk.

The Symbolic Power of a Chinese Brush in History

Since at least the Han Dynasty (est. 206 BCE), the Chinese Brush has been held in very high esteem as a vehicle for expressing meaning and accomplishing the seemingly impossible. The Brush is the marker of the learned scholar and the inventive artist alike. As such, the Brush has come to stand symbolically as a powerful tool for creating and controlling the world, both politically and metaphysically. Its power to expose, create, record, and in some cases control the truth has lent it a surprisingly mystical presence in Chinese Culture. Stories of magical brushes abound. T.C. Lai’s short volume “Treasures of a Chinese Studio”, published 1976, contains a great many anecdotes and legends relating to the Chinese Brush, and the others of the Four Treasures. Some brushes have been said to grant every desire of the owner, so long as he never tell a soul of its power. Others had the ability to make real anything rendered by the brush, often with catastrophic results. Whether a source of fortune or misfortune, these tales all agree in one respect: the brush is a powerful tool that deserves great respect.

The Brush – a Honored Tool in Chinese Culture

Artists and scholars have long sought after the finest Brushes. The Hu Brush (湖筆) took its name from Hu Zhou (湖州), and ancient province of China, and was first produced in the (external city of Wu Xing (吳興/Wu Hsing). There, a monument and temple were erected to Meng Tian (蒙恬/d. 210 BCE), the reputed inventor of the Writing Brush who lived in the Qin Dynasty (秦朝). The Hu Brush was for centuries part of the tribute and levy of Hu Zhou, and fetched high prices throughout the Empire. This practice survived the fall of the Han and continued into the Tang Dynasty. The families of Chen (陳) and Zhu Ge (諸葛) were renowned for supplying the greatest calligraphers with the tools of their trade. Brushes modeled after those commissioned by Wang Xi Zhi (王羲之/303-361) continued to be made and honoured for centuries. Even as late as the Northern Song Dynasty (宋朝/960-1127), the noted Neo-Confucian Su Shi (蘇軾/Su Shih, 1037-1101) praised the brushes of the Zhu Ge family. As you can see, the writing Brush was highly prized as an implement for the maintenance and continuation of the elite literary tradition. The value placed on specific brushes was consistent across vast historical epochs.