HIDDEN on Lianhua Street, where numerous shops sell Chinese writing brushes, Wu Xinnu’s store might be easily missed, but the 43-year-old woman seems quite satisfied with her current life.
Her shop in Huzhou City, Zhejiang Province, though not big, is neatly organized with all kinds of writing brushes. Buyers have a wide selection — brushes with goat, weasel, rabbit, pig, mouse, wolf, badger and even tiger hair are all available. Options for brush handle include bamboo, jade and ivory.
Most of the time during the day, Wu stays in the shop to take care of the business. She has converted one corner of the shop into a small lounge, where she’s set up a tea table and a guzheng, a stringed instrument, to entertain herself when she’s not busy.
The business is good and she has a steady flow of repeat customers.
“I’m very content with my life now. Many people are trying to persuade me to open an online shop to expand the business, but I said no. This is already enough,” Wu says as she engraves a bamboo handle.
Huzhou’s Shanlian Town is the birthplace and biggest producer of Chinese writing brushes. Most villagers earn a living by making and trading brushes.
Born into a family where her mother and grandmother made brushes all their lives in factories, Wu has a special attachment to the trade.
At the age of 19, she was taught by carver Zhang Hongxing to engrave brush handles. She opened her own store, Xinyi Brushes, in 1999 and at the time was one of the youngest in the industry.
Regarded as the head of the “Four Treasures of the Study,” writing brushes date back more than 2,000 years. Inkstones, ink sticks and paper are the other treasures.
A Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) legend goes that General Meng Tian invented the first writing brush with a piece of wood and the hairs of deer and goat. Meng later settled in Shanlian, where he improved the brush with rabbit and goat hairs and taught the skills to others in the village.
The brush-making tradition was then passed down through generations. Almost every family has someone working in one of the brush factories and there are more than 100 such shops in town.
During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), villagers built a shrine to remember Meng. Every spring, brush workers and traders get together in the shrine, burn joss sticks and kneel in front of the general’s statue, praying for good business.
“It’s a yearly ritual in the town and we believe General Meng is always blessing us,” Wu says.
Every two weeks, she drives about one hour back to Shanlian Town from the center of Huzhou to pick up new brushes for her shop. Several years ago, the villagers proudly set up a giant bronze brush statue at the entrance of the town.
There are more than 120 steps in making a high-quality brush. Normally the soft goat hairs from the armpits are used to make a brush. “The hairs stay in better condition,” she says.
The major steps in the process include “water basin, tying the hairs, manicuring, shaping and carving.”
The water basin, one of the most important steps, gets its name because it is done in a water basin. Thousands of hairs are put in the water and handpicked one by one according to their quality. Then they are cut and combed into the same size and length.
This step greatly decides whether a writing brush is good or not because the hair quality is the most crucial element.
Clean-cut in good order, sharp at the brush’s tip, perfectly round and with strong elasticity are the main standards to judge a writing brush.
“It all depends on how skillful a water basin worker is,” Wu says. “However, a good such worker today is hard to find because the requirements are high and good ones are getting old.”
Her grandmother, who passed away several years ago, was a water basin worker. Due to long hours of soaking in cold water, her grandmother’s fingers were distorted and she got skin ulcers easily year round. “Her hands were almost rotten in winter,” Wu recalls.
Xu Meiqin, 50, has been doing the water basin job for about 32 years when she was hired by state-owned Shanlian No. 2 Chinese Brush Factory.
Now retired, she still does the job at home, freelancing for shop owners like Wu. In her backyard, several large bamboo baskets loaded with half-processed brushes are being dried in the sun.
Water basin worker Xu Meiqin are combing the hairs.
Water basin workers align the hairs that have been shaped.
Wu Xinnu carves the brush stalk.
Zhu Jinmao glues the hairs to the stalk.
“It took about three years to master the water basin skills,” Xu says. “It’s really a hard job.”
She has to comb the hairs again and again with a sharp-toothed comb, so her fingers often get pricked.
After the water basin step and being tied up tightly, the neatly cut hairs are passed to the hands of shapers, who manicure the hairs and remove some of the strays.
Zhu Jinmao, 60, has done this job at Shanlian No. 2 Chinese Brush Factory for more than three decades. He will retire by the end of this year.
“I have no other skills but shaping the hairs,” he says, carefully gluing the tied-up hairs to a stalk.
In the old days, the glue was made of seaweed, but now in order to lower the cost it has been replaced with normal glue. “But I like the old glue,” Zhu says.
After being dried in the sun, further manicured and many other steps, it comes to the last step — engraving the brush handles, which Wu is good at. “Because my grandmother and mother were all water basin workers they made sure I learned the easiest step,” Wu says with a smile.
Normally carving a handle requires two knives — one for horizontal strokes and the other for vertical strokes. After carving, Wu paints it with chalk powder.
“It’s very simple, but if you want to do it well, it still requires time and practice,” she says.
The major material for a brush handle is from the bamboo grown on Tianmu Mountain in Zhejiang Province. The bamboo there is very straight and the gap inside is small, making it suitable for a handle.
Though business is good, Wu is still concerned about the industry’s future. Last year, a businessman from Beijing purchased a huge supply of goat hair and hired a large number of water basin workers — even ones who are not very skilled. “I don’t think it is the right way to do business,” Wu says. “He’s just in it for the quick money.”