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Chinese painting and calligraphy: basic materials

The written Chinese language has been in use since about 1300 BC. Writing was held in great esteem because of its political and religious authority. This was carried over into the respect given the arts of calligraphy ('beautiful writing') and painting. The basic equipment used by both the Chinese painter and calligrapher consisted of ink, inkstone, writing brush and paper, known as 'the four treasures of the scholar's studio'.

Chinese ink is made in the form of dry sticks, flat cakes and other shapes. The liquid ink is made by grinding the inkstick on an inkstone with water. The best ink is made from pine soot and animal glue. The inkstone is generally made of stone or ceramic. The writing brush, already in use in the Neolithic period, used hair from a deer, goat, hare or wolf.

Paper was invented in China in the first century BC, providing a cheaper alternative to silk (which was known since Neolithic times), and made possible the widespread development of writing. Painters, however, continued to prefer silk. It was not until the rise of amateur, or literati painting under the Song dynasty (AD 960-1279) and Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) that plain ink on paper was seen as the ideal medium. By contrast, professionals of the painting academy used colours on silk. The distinction between literati and professional painting persisted from this period.

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The British Museum's collections, £16.99

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