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: A Chinese Writing Set


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Institute has lately acquired a Chinese writing set of the Ch'ien Lung period which will convey, through the beauty of its parts, some suggestion of the reverence in which the Chinese hold the art of calligraphy, generally defined as the writing of words or groups of words for the purpose of conveying thought. In addition to three of the four Treasures of the Room of Literature, the brushes, ink, and ink stone, the set includes a jade brush holder, a jade brush pot, a jade arm rest, a jade water cup, a jade seal box, and a pair of T'ien Huang stone seals. The fourth treasure of the Room of Literature, paper, is missing from a set that is notable for the richness of its appointments. They did not, originally, form a set but have been assembled to illustrate the variety of objects that might be found on the work stable of a calligrapher or painter. With such a set a Chinese gifted in the art of calligraphy could produce writings that would bring lasting fame to their author. But with the four treasures alone an inspired calligrapher could produce writings of such beauty that they would be cherished throughout the ages by those who see in fine Chinese calligraphy an art worthy of the highest praise.The idea that a piece of handwriting can afford to the observer an aesthetic pleasure greater than that offered by almost any of the visual arts is one that may be viewed with a good deal of skepticism by the average occidental, who sees in writing only a convenient means of exchanging thoughts and ideas. He is aware of the fact that there is good writing and bad, a beautiful hand and an ugly one, the attractive appearance of a page or a slovenly one, but it would never occur to him to hang a piece of writing on the wall merely for the intellectual or sensuous pleasure to be derived form the beauty of the writing itself. The Chinese regard writing in a different light. To them it is perhaps the finest of all the arts, one in which they see an abstract beauty surpassing that to be found in sculpture or architecture or even in painting. The esteem in which the Chinese hold calligraphy—and it is interesting to observe that the term calligraphy now associates itself chiefly with Chinese writing—must stem partly from the fact that the Chinese written language is the mother of Chinese arts. Chinese characters are pictographic, each one isolated and suggesting a picture to the reader. The pictographs from which modern script evolved have, except for lingering suggestion, disappeared from Chinese characters of today. But their form remains in ancient Chinese bronzes, in jades and porcelains, and in certain characteristic lines of Chinese architecture. Thus the Chinese see calligraphic elements in everything, and esteem their language the more for the impetus it has given other arts.Chinese calligraphy is believed to be as old as the history of China itself, and it is a fact that in the writing of the Shang period, which provides the earliest examples of Chinese writing available, the important principles of the formation of Chinese characters as we know them had already been established. During the period that has elapsed since Shang times there have been many changes, in grammar, style, vocabulary, and in the form of the characters themselves. Nevertheless, the changes have been in the nature of a development rather than in the discarding of the original principles upon which the language was based. One who is perfectly versed in modern Chinese may find the script of the Shang oracle bones completely beyond his comprehension, but the scholar who delves into the long history of Chinese calligraphy is able to follow in reverse the logical development of Chinese writing from the pictographs of the ancient Chinese to Chinese writing as it appears today.Calligraphy, like all other Chinese arts, is based on nature and it is through the constant observation of natural forms that the Chinese have been able to give their characters a movement and rhythm that is missing in almost all other written languages in the world. They possess, moreover, a balance and poise and asymmetry that would be possible only in a language made up of the monosyllabic and pictographic characters which constitute the Chinese written language. That language is not constructed from an alphabet as western languages are. Each character represents an ideograph, and within certain limits the artist can present that ideograph in the manner that seems the most perfect to him. The fact that each character fills an imaginary square gives the calligrapher unusual leeway in the matters of composition, balance, and, most vital of all, motion. He must adhere only to the essential nature of the character: the invariable number of strokes that make it up and the position those strokes occupy in relation to the character as a whole.It will be seen, particularly in view of the numerous types of strokes at the disposal of the practiced calligrapher and the different styles of writing he may adopt, that extraordinary variety is open to him. The strokes may be rapid or measured, thick or thin, bold or delicate. In preparation for making them the calligrapher spends many hours and years in rigorous study, not only of the strokes themselves, but of poetry and philosophy and above all of nature—the manner in which a tree casts a shadow or a boat floats downstream or a bird perches on a bough. The Chinese believe that man cannot be a great calligrapher unless he is a cultivated man, for in executing the strokes of his characters the richness of his mind and the strength and cunning of his hand must function as one. If a piece of writing is done by a great artist it is a foregone conclusion that the spirit behind it will have been a noble spirit, and the observer is more impressed in this case by the beauty of the writing than by the importance of the thought. The same sort of pleasure is often derived by westerners from another source—the sound of a line of poetry or prose rather than the actual meaning behind the sound.The great part of the beauty of Chinese writing comes from the implements with which it is performed: brush, ink, and a loosely woven, porous paper. Using a brush rather than a rigid pen of the west the Chinese has at his command a flexible instrument which will follow every least variation of his thought and personality. He may follow a style of writing perfected by one of the great calligraphers of the past, but, because of his personality and his own manner of brushing, the writing will be distinctively his own and he may in turn become one of the venerated masters of an art that has a wider popular appeal than any other in China. Even today, when printing and other forms of mechanical reproduction have reached such proportions, a paper bearing writing on it is so deeply respected in China that no piece of writing is wantonly destroyed. If it has outlived its usefulness it is taken, together with other discarded handwritten documents, to a small pagoda known as the Pagoda of Compassionating Characters where it is burned with ceremony As in no other language Chinese written characters convey not only a thought but the beauty of the thought that prompted them. The possibility that such thoughts could come to a degrading end is distasteful to the Chinese.In view of the reverence and esteem in which the Chinese hold writing it is easy to understand the art they often lavished on the instruments of writing. The writing set now on display illustrates all but one of those instruments. Of them the ink stone is most cherished by many Chinese. Ink and paper are used up and disappear and brushes wear out in time, but a good ink stone is constant. The ink stones a slab of stone on which the ink stick is ground in water to make the ink with which the writer will brush his characters. And it must not be supposed that just any stone will do. Color and especially grain are important elements in judging a stone, for it is the grain that facilitates the rubbing of the ink stick and contributes toward producing a good ink. The form of the stone is of no great importance, despite the fact that most great artists have had a particular favorite. What is essential is that the stone be divided into two parts: the upper part a shallow cavity for holding the water, the lower part a flat surface on which to rub the ink stick.The ink stone in the Institute's writing set is made of a fine blue-black stone from the Tuan Chih district of Kwantung, noted from early times for the quality of its stone. It is made in the shape of the ancient jade symbol of authority bestowed by the emperor and is known as the kuei-yang-yen type. The decoration is of archaic dragons and bats on the upper surface and an all-over leaf design on the back. The stone dates from the Ch'ien Lung period, in which ink stones of unsurpassed elegance and splendor were produced. During the long course of their use there is, almost no element of nature, or of Chinese symbolism and mythology which has not been borrowed to decorate them, and many collectors, entranced both by their charm and their association, have added them to other works of art in their collections.Ink sticks, like ink stones, have long figured in collections on both sides of the world. The finest of them bear decorations as delicate and fanciful as any to be found in Chinese art. Happily, the form of Chinese ink makes such decoration possible. It is not a liquid, such as is used in western countries, but a solid form that may take as many shapes as the ink stones themselves. The ink is produced by a mixture of smoke deposit with a solution of some glutinous substance. The product is then put to the set in a mould which has been previously decorated. One of the favorite smokes for making ink is pine smoke, which produces an intensely black ink with a dull finish, and it is said that in China there are pine trees which give off so black a smoke that they are especially cherished for the making of ink. The ink sticks are matured like wine after they are finished, and as the artist rubs his ink in a little water on the flat slab of his ink stone he reflects upon the venerable age of his medium and upon the beautiful pine tree which made it possible.The ink stick in the Institute's set is a small one with a simple decoration, but the lengths to which Chinese ink makers might go in decorating their inks is illustrated in a group of sixty-four inks made for the Emperor Chia Ch'ing and presented to the Institute by Alfred F. Pillsbury. Each of the sixty-four is lavishly decorated with gilded scenes and inscriptions commemorating views in the Imperial gardens. The brush, third of the Four Treasures, is the instrument which takes on most completely, and most completely mirrors, the personality of the artist. Tradition says that the first painting brush was made by General M'ng T'ien of the Ch'in dynasty, who bound a mixture of deer hair and sheeps' wool on a wooden handle. Later artists used the hair of rabbits, camels, mice, and wolves, according to their own requirements. Some types of brushes are suited to one style of painting and some to another, so that a calligrapher would find it desirable to have a battery of brushes at hand. The care taken in making the brushes is illustrated by the fact that the fur for rabbits' hair brushes is plucked only in the autumn, when it is of just the right strength yet soft enough to be pliable. Once painters have their brushes they train them in their ways, so that mind, wrist, and brush work harmoniously together. Many brushes are works of art in themselves, with handles of precious metal or jewels. Those in the Institute's writing set are of two sized with handles of green jade.The brush pot which holds the brush stand which supports them, are both of white jade carved with the contemplative landscapes so frequently present in these appointments of the writing table. The brush pot is an unusually fine example of Ch'ien Lung jade carving with its deeply cut trees and rocks.A refinement of the writing table is the white jade arm rest carved with an eagle on a rock, representing heroism, and a peach tree, representing long life. On the back of the stone is an inscription extolling the quality of the jade and rejoicing in the fact of its presence among the writer's tools. Of white jade also, carved in the form of the plant of long life, is the water cup from which the shallow well of the ink stone would be filled.The two small seals of rare T'ien Huang stone, carved with Foo dogs, and the white jade seal box, illustrate the instruments with which a characteristic touch is added to Chinese calligraphy and paintings—the red seals of artist or collector. Although of the Ch'ien Lung period, the seals bear the name of Chang Po-Hsi, a well-known scholar of the nineteenth century. It is the custom in China for scholars to collect seals of earlier periods from which they remove the manes of original owners and replace them with their own.It is to be hoped that this beautiful set of Chinese writing accessories will arouse in the observer an interest in Chinese calligraphy. Unhappily, no supreme examples of it are to be seen in the Institute, but an examination of Chiang Yee's volume on Chinese Calligraphy, which has been placed in the gallery, will give some idea of the delight to be derived from this art. Even in reproduction the characters of some of the great calligraphers of the past stir the imagination and make comprehensible the pleasure to be experienced in contemplation of the abstract beauty of line.Referenced Works of Art
  1. White Jade Brush Pot with Deeply Carved Decoration. Chinese, Ch'ien Lung Period. John R. Van Derlip Fund.
  2. Chinese Writing Set Assembled from Jade and Stone Accessories of the Ch'ien Lung Period (1736-1795). John R. Van Derlip Fund.
  3. Covered White Jade Seal Box and a Pair of T'ien Huang Stone Seals with Decoration of Carved Foo Dogs. Ch'ien Lung Period.
  4. Four Chinese Inks from a set made for the Emperor Chia Ch'ing (1796-1821). Gift of Alfred F. Pillsbury.
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Source: "A Chinese Writing Set," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 33, no. 32 (December, 1944): 112-117.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009