In the old days, it was considered that every scholar or academic should be versed in the Four Arts (四藝 sì yì): the qín 琴 (string musical instrument), the qí 棋 (a strategy game similar to chess), calligraphy (書 shū) and painting (畫 huà).
In turn, within calligraphy and ink painting, there are four tools that are known in China as the Four Treasures of the Study (文房四寶 wén fáng sì bǎo), as they had to be present on every scholar's desk. These four treasures are: ink (墨 mò), brush (毛笔 máobǐ), paper (纸 zhǐ) and inkstone (砚台 yàntái).
Traditionally, ink is produced in the form of solid bars that have to be mixed with water to obtain liquid ink. To manufacture these bars, soot is collected from smoke produced by burning certain types of wood, diluted in water and subjected to a process in which it is mixed with binder resins. When the mixture is ready, it is placed in a mold in which it is left to dry.
Ink bars of different styles and sizes.
At the time of use, this solid ink is mixed with water and rubbed against a stone, specially prepared for this purpose, to produce the liquid ink.
The brush is composed of a trunk made of bamboo, wood or other materials and a flexible animal hair tip. We have already written in detail about the brush in this article, which you can refer to to learn more about its features, history and the different types that exist.
Paper was invented in China around the 1st century B.C. Paper used in Chinese calligraphy and painting is known as Xuān paper (宣紙 xuānzhǐ), unique for being thin, soft and very resistant. There are different types of this paper, with different absorption capacity, which makes them more or less suitable for specific uses.
Xuān paper is also known as "rice paper", as this is one of the materials used for its production. But the bark of certain trees, such as some types of elms or, specially, mulberry, can also be used instead.
Xuān paper (宣紙 xuānzhǐ) for Chinese calligraphy.
It is a block of rough stone with a cavity to contain the ink. It is essential to produce liquid ink from the continuous rubbing of a solid bar against the surface of the stone, to which a bit of water is added. Thus, the solid ink is diluted in the water, until the desired density is acquired, and it accumulates in the cavity of the stone.
Currently this traditional method of preparing the ink, from rubbing the bar into the stone, is disappearing in favor of the ready-made liquid ink sold in jars.
Inkstone (砚台 yàntái) carved with decorative motifs.
Traditional production of the Four Treasures of the Study
This video by Lǐ Zǐqī 李子柒 shows the traditional manufacture of the tools known as the Four Treasures.