On the Four Treasures 文房四寶
A Chinese expression originating from the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589 AD), the Four Treasures, Jewels, or Friends of the Scholar’s Studio are the Brush, the Ink, the Paper and the Inkstone. We would go so far as to say they are the Four Essential Indispensibles of the Studio – without them, one cannot work. We should aspire to be like the archetypal Scholar, a member of the literati, a highly literate, cultivated and refined individual and the interior of our studio should reflect this. On our desk are placed the essential tools of our trade, without which we cannot work, be it painting, composing poetry or writing a treatise (in China, calligraphy and painting go hand-in-hand).
Of course, we start with that oldest treasure of all, the Brush (毛筆; mao bi). The archaeological record dates it back to the Zhou dynasty (1045-256 BC). There is no one brush to rival all brushes; different brushes are needed to create different parts of the painting. The One Brush to rule them all is possibly not a even a brush but a polished mirror reflecting the world both seen and unseen.
Next comes the ink stick; soot, spices and other aromatics are powdered and reformed, painted with poetry or landscape scenes and transformed into objects of beauty in themselves (as all good Treasures must be). Spices create scent and provide protection to the ink itself; they can be thought of as talismanic objects in some ways related to Chinese medicine.
Paper, the third Treasure, needs no introduction. Famously invented by the Chinese, it comes in various forms and sizes with different levels of absorption. The painting or writing surface can also be silk or bamboo fibre; there are special papers in existence whose longevity is said to last 1,000 years.
The final Treasure is the Inkstone. When ground with water it produces the liquid black ink, which at its palest is a translucent wash of the softest dawn grey and at its darkest is the strongest, most powerfully permanent night black. Not coincidentally is it a stone; stones and rocks have a long and well-loved history in the Chinese studio in the form of Scholar’s Rocks – naturally occurring, curiously shaped rocks inviting the scholar to contemplate the passing of time and the boundless aeons which shaped their creation.
The Chinese love things that come in fours. There are, however, other Treasures. There is the brush holder, the paperweight, the rinsing pot, the seal. There is the seal ink, there are the Scholar’s Rocks and there are the beautiful, colourful pigments which are, at times, semi-precious gemstones in themselves. We would add a puzzle, a physical game of some sort to occupy one's hands as a refreshing break, an ostrich egg - the world's largest single cell - some turtles and a teapot ~