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ART & LEISURE: Four Treasures of the Study
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Four Treasures of the Study

By Nadia N.

BT 201608 220 01 A L chinese brushesIt takes a special type of science to analyse the handwriting of a person but this technique can be used to generate detailed information about a person's mental state, habits, aptitude, personal characteristics and tons of other "secret" data. In general, one can definitely benefit at some point by having understandable and beautiful handwriting. In China, calligraphy - "书法" (shu1fa3) - occupies a special place and has played an important role from BC years so long ago up to modern times. Nowadays calligraphy is mostly practiced as a discipline. Children learn how to write characters in a correct way and beautiful writing of characters is a "must" for the educated Chinese. But in ancient China the ability to write characters in an artistic way was a special kind of fine art and only aristocrats and highly educated people could afford to study it.

BT 201608 220 02 A L Chinese calligraphyAccording to some historians, calligraphy was born the same day as when the first characters were created - around 4000BC. Extant examples of writing and calligraphy appeared on so-called oracle bones (animal bones, turtle shells) and bronze vessels dated 1000-1400 BC. These objects were used for sacred divination rituals. One of the oldest artifacts of "artistic writing" found recently (2003) was dated by archeologists as far back as 1435-1412 BC. Ceramic inscriptions found at Zhengzhou Shang city contained single-written characters in cinnabar paint. Of course, characters of that ancient period hardly looked like the characters that we know today. They were picture-like and were significantly easier to understand (too bad foreigners didn't learn Chinese then).

With the Imperial era of China, characters and calligraphy changed with the reforms of emperors and fashion and different styles were created. Calligraphy at the time was the prerogative of only highly educated people, close to the emperor and members of the royal family. Good calligraphy skills were known to be as challenging to acquire as it is to become a martial art master. So, pieces of hand-written scripts were presented from one aristocrat to another as an honourable gift.

BT 201608 220 05 A L IMG 0102As a matter of fact, while different styles and characters came and went from the calligraphy stage, tools and materials have barely changed, even up to now. Traditionally, the quartet of ink brush, ink, paper, and ink stone was "in charge" of calligraphy since the long gone dynasties and emperors. They are respectfully called "Four Treasures of the Study"- "文房四宝". These Four Treasures are the same materials employed by traditional Chinese painters. Some critics have argued about the importance and the status of the "top art", and came to the conclusion that calligraphy should considered as being a fine art which is akin to painting - due to its accuracy and subtlety.

Self-expression and personalisation are some of the crucial aspects of calligraphy and one of the reasons why it so highly esteemed. One of the earliest recorded instances concerns the first-century emperor Ming of the Han, who, upon hearing that his cousin was on his deathbed, dispatched a messenger to obtain a piece of his writing before he passed away. By so doing, Emperor Ming was hoping to be able to "commune" with his relative, even after death, through traces of his personality embodied by his calligraphy.

BT 201608 220 04 A L IMG 0102Overall, calligraphy is not only a beautiful picture on a piece of paper. Like most of the things in China, it has its own hidden meaning that shouldn't be overlooked. Early critics and historians often, if not always, compared and linked the process of writing with the natural world and its elements. For instance, the movement of the brush is associated with the force of the boulder rushing down the hill or the tiny ripples in the lake left by swimming geese. The writing elements would be also described in physiological terms like "bones", "flesh", "muscles" etc. In brief, calligraphy definitely involves Confucian and Daoist emphasis, which indeed makes it a reflection of Chinese culture as a whole.

While on one hand the art of writing demands personalisation, on the other hand it sets strict rules that dilettante and master alike should follow. Apart from the fact that characters need to be correct and fit the context, there are some more faint rules. Written characters are supposed to be legible, however, if the reader is not familiar with the used style or, for instance, unable to read cursive, it doesn't deprive the script of being "calligraphically-correct".

Another 'rule' states that calligraphy should be concise. While Western scholars of the past were showing off with their "curly" handwriting, Chinese masters were keeping it black and white as the characters and meaning were considered more important. And the last but not least, characters are supposed to be aesthetically pleasing, which is why the contemporary generation appreciates calligraphy in the first place.

Tianjin as a city with a great and long history has a lot of nation-wide famous calligraphy masters. However, to buy their works as a souvenir is a little challenging. Works of renowned artist can cost thousands and millions of CNY, and perhaps, it is better just to observe and appreciate it in Tianjin Museum or Ancient Culture Street. In addition, to learn more about calligraphy and to choose a brush or ink, or all "Four Treasures of The Study", Ancient Culture Street is the right place. Among clothes and fan shops, there is always a store or two crowded with brushes, paper and ink, so why not make-believe you are a luminous calligraphy master too?


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