Types, Structure and Composition of Chinese and Japanese Brushes

Explanation of the Structure of a Chinese Brush

Tip, Spine and Reservoir : Most standard Chinese Brushes have a defined tip. Shorter hairs form the core, or spine, of this tip. Longer hairs are arrayed to come to a point where the spine ends. Between the spine and the outside, shorter and sometimes softer hairs are used to form a sort of reservoir into which ink will flow, welling up from the Ink Slab. The core and outside will usually be of the same fur type, while the reservoir hairs might be from a different animal. This reservoir is what allows the Brush to hold enough ink for more complex characters, or even for a series of characters without the need to recharge the Brush.

What kinds of Hair are used for a Chinese Brush?

Animal Hair: Chinese Brushes traditionally use animal hair for bristles. These hairs can be taken either from a single type of animal, or mixed. The health of the animal is always important for the quality of the hair provided. Indeed, there is even a tradition of selecting hair based on the season in which it is harvested, as the thickness and softness of the hair may change with the seasons.

What are Hard Brushes in Chinese Brush Painting and Calligraphy?

Stiff Hairs : As you can see from our online shop we offer brushes with many different types of hair. The most common Stiff Hair used is Wolf. This is not actually Wolf Hair, but rather taken from a certain type of weasel. A genuine Wolf Hair Brush is such a rarity that one will easily cost thousands of dollars. The common misnomer is due to a close similarity between the Chinese words for wolf and weasel. The hairs of the weasel are stiffer and more elastic than are the soft hairs of the Goat. Its elasticity causes it to spring back to its original form once it is taken from the paper. While weasel hair is the most common, a variety of other hairs can be used to make Stiff Brushes. In order of descending stiffness, these are Swine hair, Horse hair, Badger hair, Rat hair, Rabbit hair, Weasel hair, and finally Wolf hair. By combining Stiff and Soft Hairs, a very versatile compound brush is created.

What are Soft Brushes in Chinese Brush Painting and Calligraphy?

Soft Hairs: Goat hair is the most commonly used soft hair. Goat hair is often used because of its relative inexpensiveness, and because it allows for a maximum number of brush effects. Goat hairs are more flexible, but do not spring back to their original shape as a Stiff Hair Brush. Many professional artists use Goat hair precisely because it is very difficult to control. The unintentional effects that Goat Hair Brushes create can add interest to the work produced.

What are Mixed Hair Brushes in Chinese Brush Painting and Calligraphy?

Many brushes contain a mixture of different hair. These will be referred to as mixed-hair, compound or hybrid brushes. In general a full, soft hair type will be used for the interior, in order to maximize the amount of ink the brush can hold. Meanwhile, a stiff outer layer ensures a good point is maintained. A Compound Brush thus provides the artist with the best of both worlds. As always, trying many different brushes will allow you to find your own preferences.

Explanation / Definition of the Four Virtues of a Brush


This refers to the way the brush spreads out on the paper. When pressed to the page, the brush will spread out in a uniform, yet contained way, neither splaying too wide nor bunching up. This is achieved by ensuring that the hairs are glued together in an even and consistent manner that accounts for the way it will flex when in use.


Traditional Chinese Arts stress free and even movement in every direction on the page. As such, all Chinese Brushes are as perfectly round as possible. This ensures that no matter what direction the Brush moves, or how it is held, the maximum amount of control over line width is achieved. Once again, this is down to the expertise of the brush maker: gluing the tip together, and then into the handle, the maker must avoid deforming the roundness of the brush.


A good brush is a full brush. By squeezing the back of the brush, we can assess how full a brush is. If the brush feels strong and full, this is a good indicator that it will hold ink well and be responsive on the page.


All Chinese Brushes should naturally come to a fine point when at rest. As brushes age, then may lose their tip, and will eventually need to be replaced. Inability to hold a point is the best indicator that a brush is past its useful life.


In general, the bigger the brush, the larger the characters it should produce. It may seem rather obvious, but writing small characters with a massive brush will be totally impossible. In a similar vein, writing very large characters with a small brush will not only be difficult, but the effect will be undesirable: the line thickness will not correctly match its length, and the brush won’t hold enough ink to complete a single character.

The most common classes of brush are the Da Kai Bi (大楷筆) and the Xiao Kai Bi (小楷筆), or Large and Small-Print Brushes. As you can see, the Chinese do not necessarily obsess over every particular detail of Brush size. Some more obscure brushes might be used for writing large characters, or for very small ones. In general, however, brushes may be considered either large, or small.