Chinese Scholars’ Treasures from the Jizhen Zhai Collection

scholars' treasuresOctober 25 – December 14, 1997
Any person involved in the traditional Chinese arts of painting and calligraphy must rely heavily on four indispensable stationery items – brush, ink, paper, and inkstone, for they are the main tools used in the day to day business of writing and painting. A serious scholar or artist selects these implements with utmost care. As a result of the importance given to these four objects, they came to be known as werifang sibao – the four treasures of the studio. The phrase werifang sibao appeared during the Song dynasty (960-1279 A.D.) with the emergence of the literati, or wenren, as the elite ruling class. It later encompassed a broader range of objects that included those with functional purpose and those with purely artistic or decorative purpose collected by scholars simply for their beauty or rarity. Examples include Taihu rocks, brush hangers, brush washers, brush rests, bitong or brushpots, water droppers, table screens, paper weights, paintings, and small carvings made of jade, bamboo, coral, soapstone, rhinoceros horn, or turquoise.
Because these objects decorated and complemented the scholar’s desks, they were enjoyed at private gatherings in intimate settings. Most of them were created for personal pleasure and made for close appreciation or handling rather than for public viewing. It is rare to see so many of these scholar’s objects in one display. Undoubtedly, the Chinese literati and those involved with traditional Chinese art would have in their possession the essential articles for the scholar’s studio, but it is seldom that we find in a single collection the quality and breadth as seen in Jizhen Zhai. Indeed, the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco is pleased to have the opportunity to present this exhibition. We are grateful to Dr. Fang J ing Pei of the Jizhen Zhai Collection in Pennsylvania for lending us over one hundred sixty items of exquisite and superb craftsmanship. The accompanying catalogue presents an Ill-depth study on scholars’ objects, and we recommend anyone interested in the subject to read through the publication.
The accoutrements of the scholar’s table formed an eclectic assortment of articles reflecting the owner’s status and individual taste. With the development of commerce and private patronage of the arts beginning in the Song and later in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the literati set the standards for the scholarly and artistic pursuits of the time. It was believed that the artifacts they collected reflected their scholarly background, which is based on Confucian principles of morality and integrity. As these objects cultivated the spirit, the more refined and aesthetically pleasing they were, the more cultivated the mind of the scholar was considered to be. The artifacts were either inherited, received as gifts, or acquired. Some of them might have come from other scholars or famous literati and possessed great historical or sentimental value; others might have come from the various imperial courts.
In the ritual of writing and painting, a scholar began with the preparation of the ink. A dry inkstick (fig. 1) was ground with a small amount of water on a slightly abrasive inkstone or inkslab. Containers made of ceramic (fig. 2), stone, or jade held the water which would be ladled onto the inkstone or used to wash a brush. The brushes (fig. 3), made with animal hair, were kept in straight-sided pots (fig. 5) together with rolls of paper and small scrolls. The scholar would lay the brushes on decorative brush rests, many of them in the shape of miniature mountains. Figure 6 shows a Ming dynasty ivory brush rest, or bi shall} in the shape of the fantastic rocks of Taihu (Lake Tai), near the present-day Jiangsu and Zhejiang border. These Taihu rocks are placed in garden settings or on the scholar’s desk exemplifying the Chinese passion to represent the world in miniature. The scholar would also use a wrist rest to brace the wrist in order to keep it from touching the paper (fig. 4). Seals of stone, ivory, wood, jade, and bronze were carved with the name of the scholar, his studio Or a favorite sentiment. The vermilion paste for the seals was stored in covered ceramic boxes and an L-shaped guide might be used to align the seal on a manuscript or painting, thus completing the scholar’s undertaking.
The art of the “four treasures of the studio” reached high levels of excellence in dynasties of literary prominence beginning in the Tang (618-907 A.D.) and later in the Song (960-1279 A.D.). Examples are the Tang dynasty Zhu Ge brush and Duan inkstone, Li Tinggui (active 950-980) inksticks and the xuan paper of Cheng Xin Tang (in Xin’ an, Xuan Prefecture) of the Five Dynasties period (907-960 A.D.). “To do a good job, one must first sharpen one’s tools;’ a Chinese maxim goes. With this emphasis in perfecting the utensils of the scholars, the “treasures of the studio” were thus created with great technical craftsmanship and aesthetic refinement.

The brush (mao bi) has been the irreplaceable tool of Chinese painters and calligraphers since ancient times. According to archaeological research, the ancient oracle characters inscribed onto the tortoise shells, animal bones, and pottery of the Shang dynasty period (16th-11th century B.C.), were first drawn with a brush, then carved with a sharp tool. The pliant point of the brush is capable of producing lines of great strength and suppleness, as well as fine and delicate threads in response to the artist’s skillful hand.
Brushes are made from fine, soft: animal hair. The brushes used today can be classified by the type of hair used: goat hair (yang hao), wolf hair (lang hao), and purple hair (zi hao). Wolf-hair brushes are in fact made from weasel hair, and purple hair brushes fi’om rabbit hair. Goat-hair brushes are soft and flexible yet lack strength. Wolf and purple-hair brushes produce bold, vigorous lines but are a bit stiff. Sometimes, to achieve a balance between steely and feathery lines, a brush that combines hair from two different types of animals (jian hao) is used. Painters and calligraphers usually have several types of brushes for different purposes and according to preference. More decorated brushes have handles fashioned of jade, bamboo, wood, porcelain, ivory, or lacquer.

The usage of ink dates back to the Neoolithic Age, some three thousand five hundred years ago, as evidenced by the painted pottery of that period. Ink is made from a mixture of pine soot, lampblack or charcoal, bound by glue, and then molded into stick or cake form. Exotic ingredients such as jade and pearl powder, lacquer and gold flecks are also used. When ground on an inks lab or inkstone with fresh water, the liquid ink has an even and smooth texture. Different gradations of grayish or bluish tonality can be achieved by varying the amount of water applied. Because ink quality has such direct Influence on the expressive results of a painting or calligraphy, artists choose inksticks with great care. Old inksticks and cakes, like the ones from the Ming dynasty, are said to be worth today more than their weight in gold.
The inksticks are in themselves works of art. The production of ink cakes in decorative forms became a minor art form as early as the Tang dynasty. In the late Ming, Cheng Dayue and Fang Yulu of the prefecture of Huizhou in Anhui Province, were two famous manufacturers of Ink cakes.
The inkstick that can be seen in Figure I belonged to the Qianlong emperor (173661795). Inscribed III gold on the face of the inkstick are the characters yu mo, or imperial Ink. The vertical inscription in the middle reads, “Reach for the Clouds and Face the Sun:’ The seal mark beneath reads, “Nature Has Ten Thousand Transformations.” On the side is the six-character mark of the Qianlong reign.
To use ink in the traditional stick form, an inkstone is required. As the name suggests, most inkstones are made of stone; some are made of ceramic. Although they come in many shapes and sizes, they must all have a smooth flat area, called the bed, for grinding the inkstick, and a sloping ll1dented area, or well, for holding spare water. The stone used must be of relatively fine whetstone material, but abrasive enough to facilitate the grinding of the ink without harming the bristles of the brush. The inkslab had appeared already in the Han dynasty (206 B.C. – AD. 220), but it was during the Tang that the basic materials and shapes that are still being used today emerged. Three kinds of materials are highly prized for inkstones: Duanzhou stone from Duanzhou, Guanggdong Province; Shexian stone from Shexian, Anhui Province; and Chengni clay from Jiangzhou, Shanxi Province. Of these three, Duan stone has been the most highly prized, in particular, zi duan) or purple duan. Because of the material, inkstones are durable items and can be passed on to future generations and collected by scholars and connoisseurs.

Perhaps one of the greatest inventions, paper was made from hemp fiber by the Chinese of the Han dynasty 111 the hrst or second century B.C. A eunuch by the name of Cal Lun (d. A.D. I 14) is known to have improved the methods of paper making, and hence provided a cheaper alternative to silk, which the Chll1ese had used for writing and painting. From then onwards, paper was made from jute, rattan, bamboo, flax, and mulberry. In the Tang dynasty, the refined xuan paper, from the ancient prefecture of Xuan III southern Anhui and northern Jiangsu province, and noted for its resistance to aging and deterioration, was widely used and praised by prominent artists. Paper became the preferred medium for scholar painters. The high absorbency and textural qualities of paper are more suitable for freer textured brushstrokes, ink splashing, and wet washes.

Representing miniature mountains, rocks are collected by scholars and placed in garden settings and In their studios. The term “guai shi,” fantastic rocks, refers to those which have been eroded into strange shapes or hollowed out by the elements. Small ornamental rocks were collected as accoutrements of scholars who saw in fantastic rocks the rugged grandeur of China’s greatest mountains m miniature form. The Emperor Huizong (r. 1101-25) of the Northern Song dynasty was famous for his passion for collecting rocks, which he gathered in his imperial park in Kaifeng. The three most renowned types are Taihu, from Lake Tai in Wuxi, ZheJiang Province; Lingbi, from Lingbi county in Anhui Province; and Ying, from Yingde county in Guangdong Province. Rocks were a popular motif in Chinese art, often depicted in painting, ceramics, and lacquer, and were also carved out of jade and other stones.

Traditionally, the most common materials for making seals were bronze and jade. The earliest seals date back to the Shang dynasty from the 12th to the 13th centuries B.C. Both bronze and jade are very hard materials which must bc slowly and carefully cast or ground by an expert craftsman in a very exacting process. With the rise of literati painting in the Yuan dynasry (1271-1368), many artists began carving their own seals since the impressions produced by them revealed the owner’s tastes and personality. Popularized by the artist Wang Mian (1287-1359) in the Yuan dynasty, soapstone became the preferred material for seal carvers because of it~ softness. The best soapstones for seals are tianbai, tianhuang, Shoushan stone from Fujian Province, Qingtian stone from Zhejiang Province, and jixue or chicken blood, stone from Changhua near Hangzhou.
In ancient China, from official government business to private affairs, a seal mark represented proof of authenticity. The usage of seals on paintings and calligraphy was not widely practiced until the 12th century. It is from the 16th century onwards that artists, calligraphers, and collectors routinely affixed their seal impressions to works of art to indicate authorship, to show appreciation, ownership, authentication, or connoisseurship.
Most of the seals are square in shape. Occasionally, they also come in round, elliptical, rectangular, or irregular shapes. A seal may contain an animal or floral design, a name, a sobriquet, the name of a studio or pavilion, an official position, a place, a date, a phrase expressing the owner’s sentiments, or quotations from the classics. A seal is pressed into vermilion ink paste which is made from cinnabar, a mercuric compound. Vermilion ink paste has a brilliant, lustrous red color that retains its original beauty over the ages. Porcelain IS the most ideal material for holding the ink paste which must be frequently stirred so that it will not dry out.

Chinese decorative arts cover a wide range of articles and materials. Silk, jade, lacquer, bronze. ceramic, ivory, rhinoceros horn, stone, gold, silver, coral, amber, glass, enamel, and cloisonne, are some of the materials employed by the Chinese in the production of decorative arts (fig 9-10). Well organized workshops created large quantities of decorative objects, first officially sponsored and later independently produced for the mass market. Expensive materials such as jade, bronze, and silk indicated the high status of the owner; and objects made of ivory, bamboo, horn, and wood, although lesser in value, were created uninterruptedly throughout the centuries. The rise of an enterprising, affluent, consumer market economy in the Ming dynasty led ro a strong demand for decorative works of art, both ancient and contemporary.
Among scholars, the preference was for objects that showed simplicity, little decoration or colors, and elegant forms. They included water droppers, incense burners, brush washers, brush pots, musical instruments such as the flute and qin (zither), cricket containers, jade pendants, paperweights, wine cups, teapots, small carvings of various materials, ruyi scepters, table screens, and fans. Although many scholars considered the decorative arts merely ctafts, their studios nevertheless became reposirories of decorative objects and refined articles of daily use that included the “four treasures of the studio”

Funding for this exhibition has been provided by Grants for the Arts of the San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund and the National Endowment for the Arts) a federal agency. The Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco is grateful to Dr. Fang Jing Pei of the Jizhen Zhai Collection for his generosity in lending us the objects for the exhibition and for his assistance throughout the planning and implementation of the project. We also thank Chinese Antique Furniture Inc. for lending the furniture to accompany the objects in the exhibition.