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China's Top Brush Maker Looks Back
Meng Tian, an ancient general who supervised the construction of China's Great Wall over 2,000 years ago, is remembered more for his military prowess than his invention of the Chinese brush pen.

In the dying industry of brush pen making, few people like 81-year-old artisan Yang Defu still practice the craft. Known as the modern "king of the brush pen" by fellow artists, Yang likes to remind people just who exactly came up with the idea of the tool, which has led to the splendor of Chinese calligraphy and watercolor painting.

Yang considers himself a relic in a modern era, when computers have erased people's interest in writing skills.

"It is an information time. Young people prefer to tap on a computer keyboard than use an antique pen to write characters," complained the pen maker, who started out as an apprentice at the age of 13.

At that time, there were some 90 apprentices working in the Wangwensheng Brush Pen Workshop in Changsha, capital of central China's Hunan Province, which Yang entered in 1934.

But the golden period was interrupted by the Japanese invasion in 1937, which turned Chinese society upside down.

Yang almost died when he was captured by Japanese soldiers and forced to do hard labor in southwest China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. He escaped and made his way back home on the journey to Guangxi.

He returned to his beloved craft, which hit another brick wall during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

"Traditional arts were considered feudalistic evils during the revolution. I grieved like a lost child when I saw bunches of brush pens thrown into fires," Yang recalled.

He secretly kept some of the brushes, which are now valuable collector's items.

In his 70-year career, Yang made over one million brushes. The veteran is still able to make dozens of the instruments daily.

He can still tell you in an instant if the wolves or weasels that produced the hairs used for his brushes were born in autumn or winter.

He says the most exciting challenge of his career was to make areplica of a brush unearthed from the Mawangdui Tomb of the Han Dynasty in Hunan, dating back some 2,000 years. His copied brush is now on display in the Hunan Provincial Museum.

In Yang's home, in an old urban district of Changsha, are hundreds of brush pens of different sizes and materials, hung on the wall, arranged by the window, placed neatly on a table or by the side of his bed.

Yang has seven children, but only his sixth, a girl, chose to follow in his footsteps. This pleases Yang, who fears the art form will die in his lifetime.

For now, he is shouldering the responsibility of being China's most famous brushmaker, a job that still keeps him busy: Many famous artists and overseas Chinese make it a point to stop by Yang's home to get a brush crafted by the master.

(Xinhua News Agency February 11, 2002)

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