The Four Treasures of the Studio – essential tools in Chinese / Kanji Calligraphy and Sumi-e (文房四寶 / Wen Fang Si Bao / Wen Fang Ssu Pao)

The Foundation of Traditional Chinese Arts

When we think of traditional Chinese arts, whether we think of Calligraphy or Painting, images in stark black and white may often come to mind. Indeed, for much of history, the Chinese art tradition has relied on a very limited set of materials and tools in order to realize artistic visions. With only four elements, the Chinese calligrapher or painter is able to evoke innumerable images and concepts. These elements collectively are known as the Four Treasures of the Studio.

The Four Treasures are Brush, Paper, Ink Stick and Ink Slab. Since at least the Han Dynasty, these materials have formed the core of the literati tradition. Thus, for the past 2000 years, the pre-eminent materials for Chinese art have remained effectively unchanged.

Overview of the Four Treasures

To begin with, the Chinese brush is a remarkable cultural achievement. Honed over the centuries, the method of making brushes that comes down to us is a testament to the ingenuity of the ancients. Using only animal hairs, bamboo and glue, the Chinese Brush may be simple materially, but this simplicity belies a complex construction that incorporates all the necessary elements for a pleasing writing or painting experience.

Chinese Paper is somewhat more complex in its manufacture. Relying on processed plant fibers and sometimes mineral elements, Chinese Paper has allowed artistic production to take place in a great many formats. The continuous field that paper can provide liberated writing from the more limited bamboo slips, and painting from the tomb wall. Although its production is reliant on a moderate level of manufacturing expertise, Chinese paper quickly surpassed silk as the portable medium of choice simply because it was both less expensive and easier to work with.

Finally, the Ink Stick and Ink Slab together are what bring the paper and brush together and record the thoughts and movements of the artist. Chinese Ink is traditionally ground from the Stick only as it is needed. Once one is in possession of an Ink Slab and Stick, one can produce Ink on demand wherever a source of water is available. It takes a very long time for an ink-stick to decay beyond the point of usefulness, and an ink slab should never wear out if treated properly. Indeed, Ink Slabs and Sticks from different periods are considered very valuable cultural artifacts

The Persistence of Traditional Media

It may be considered that it is the very simplicity of the Four Treasures that has allowed them to maintain such a hold over the Chinese artistic tradition. These tools are the very same as those used by all members of the literate class in their bureaucratic functions. In many ways, China may be considered the Empire of Ink. Every transaction, every edict, every official action from the Han on was at some point put down in the stark black of Chinese ink.

As the literate class’s privilege was historically perpetuated by the capacity to read and write, it may seem unsurprising that the tools with which they exercised this privilege became used to express the cultural values and perspectives of elite culture.