The Chinese brush, ink and inkstone used for writing characters and calligraphy and for painting are deeply significant in Chinese culture. In traditional Chinese society, scholars were taught to treat all things concerning literature and the library, including writing materials, with reverence. Over the years, numerous rules for making brushes, ink, inkstones and paper were developed and popularized. These four items were referred to as "the four precious things of the library.” Even today, Chinese students are taught to pay careful attention to character writing, despite living in an increasingly technological world.
The Chinese brush is believed to have been invented by Ming Ti'en in the third century B.C. Paper is also believed to have been created at about this time, although archaeological records show that before this, silk was used to paint on.
The chief ingredients in high quality ink are lampblack and glue, according to the same archaeological records. In ancient times, the best soot came from burning special pines in an ink furnace with jars above it to catch the soot. The soot was then removed with feather brushes. Next, it was mixed with glue, which was produced from animal horns or hides. The highest quality glue was said to be made from the horns of young deer. Good ink depended upon good glue, as it gave the ink texture and life.
Chinese ink differs significantly from Western ink in composition and also in longevity. It does not fade to the extent that Western ink does when exposed to light. Ancient pictures and calligraphy still retain their brilliance after centuries of display.
In ancient times, Chinese ink was usually sold in solid ink sticks or round ink cakes. Scholars would use ink stones to grind the ink and then mix it with water for use. Antique ink sticks and ink cakes are collector’s items and fetch high prices at auctions. Examples of ancient ink sticks and ink cakes from the Suan, Yuan and Ming dynasties can be seen at museums in China and overseas.
Inkstones, also, are collector’s items. Generally black or dark in color, they are not aesthetically beautiful. The quality of an inkstone cannot be gauged by its physical appearance but by how it works with an ink, paper and brush. Many who collect these pieces say that they can feel the power that emanated from the previous painter or scholar who possessed the stone while holding it. Prices vary greatly and are often based on who owned it last—stories which are difficult if not impossible to verify.