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Ancient stationery is scholar’s sublime refuge
By Qu Zhi

JASON Wu’s small living room is in great disorder. Too many books to keep in his bookshelves, they are jumbled up on the table, sofa and even on the wood floor. Small antiques, old newspapers and whisky bottles casually lie on the tea table. At first sight, it resembles a junk shop.


Wu, 80, a retired scholar, doesn’t care. He lights a cigarette and walks to his study — spotless and decorated in a traditional way.

On his red sandalwood desk are the four basic pieces of equipment he uses every day — paper, brush, inkstick and inkstone. They are called the wen fang si bao or “Four Treasures of the Study.” Wu uses inkstick to grind against the surface of the inkstone with water. And then the brush is dipped with ink for him to practice calligraphy.

“For me, this is the only room that matters,” the small man with pinched features and thin hair tells Shanghai Daily. “I live alone and have very few visitors. The Four Treasures of the Study are like my dearest friends and we depend on each other.”

Wu uses brushes made in Huzhou, Zhejiang Province, and inksticks and paper from Anhui Province, while his inkstone is an antique Duan inkstone from Guangdong — the best of its kind.

“When these four meet together in writing and painting, it is too wonderful for words,” says Richard Lam, a collector of Chinese stationery.


The invention of the four treasures in Chinese history comes with its ancient civilization. Before oracle bone script, the oldest-known written language in China and the world was constituted during the Bronze Age (2000-700 BC), when Chinese had already started to record things in the form of paintings on rocks.

People started to figure out a way to write. Brushes were made, becoming the oldest “Four Treasures” member with archeological evidence dating to the Zhou Dynasty (1045-256 BC). And then as the civilization developed, inkstick, inkstone and paper emerged, in that order.

The word “wenfang,” literally “scholar’s study,” first emerged in the Southern and Northern Dynasties (AD 420-589) when the scholar official was initiated in feudal China. Scholar played a more important role in society. During the Tang (AD 618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, culture and art prevailed in China, which led to booming development of Chinese stationery.

For the gentlemen in China, the scholar’s study offered a haven from the pressure of business, tumult of politics or oppression in social ranks. It rendered them solitude and cultivated surroundings for their contemplative pursuits.

There were actually far more than merely four treasures in study. No matter if it was an arm-rest for writing, a water dropper for an inkstone, a small seal stone or others, each could be held in the hand and appreciated in a tactile way.

Looking at Wu’s study: On the upper end of the desk, just adjacent to his Duan inkstone from the Song Dynasty is a water dropper made of Nanhong agate in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and a rosewood brush rest and pressure bar set with jade, an antique from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

All items are neatly arranged, with no intricate carvings or gold and ivory inlaid. In a corner of the room sits a rectangular table of plain polished Huali wood with side panels of openwork carving made in 1600 set against the wall. Ornaments and vases are displayed on it. Agarwood is burning in the blue ceramic censer, emitting a pleasing aroma.

The competition to manufacturing stationery objects became intense in ancient times, and only the most refined crafts won out over hundreds of others, Cai Meifen, who works for the historic relics department in Beijing’s Palace Museum, once said.

“Stationery in the study doesn’t need to be complex in design or with marvelous decoration. The key is the size and shape, which should be simply curved, delicate and boasts the natural beauty of the material,” says Wu.

“Just check out the study and collection of one gentleman, and then you know their taste,” says He Jun, a veteran collector. “To appreciate the stationery, which looks unsophisticated but very costly, is not easy. One needs to be well educated and with great sense of aesthetic appreciation.”

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