Treasures stand the test of time

(Shanghai Star) | Aug 29, 2014

Putting brush to paper has been a Chinese tradition for centuries, if not millennia. Here we catches up with a company that keeps this venerable art alive.

In ancient China, wenfang sibao or four treasures in the study were writing brush, ink stick, paper and ink stone. But with the evolution of writing tools, including the digitization of workflow, the once noble status of the four treasures is being challenged.

Now one company in Shanghai is selling two traditional Chinese writing tools, playing its part to make calligraphy an eternal cultural institution for the next generation.


The Fuzhou Road location of Z C Brush and Ink. [Photos provided to Shanghai Star]

The Z C Brush & Ink (Shanghai) Co Ltd was founded by merging the Zhouhuchen Brush Workshop and the Caosugong Chinese Ink Stick Workshop. They were set up in 1694 and 1667, respectively.

The star products of the new company include Zhouhuchen-branded writing brushes and oil painting brushes, as well as Chinese ink and ink sticks under the Caosugong brand. The company produces up to 1,000 types of Chinese writing brushes and painting brushes, as well as hundreds of ink sticks and high-end oil soot inks.

The company has not only inherited the 300-year traditional craftsmanship from Zhouhuchen and Caosugong, but also won the prestige of the two brands.

Currently, Zhouhuchen brush-making craft and Caosugong ink-making craft are listed under the national intangible cultural heritage protection project, which makes the company the only one undertaking two such protection projects in the industry.


A Zhouhuchen brush made specially for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. [Photo provided to Shanghai Star]


In 1694, brush craft expert Zhou Huchen from Jiangxi province set up the Zhouhuchen Brush Workshop in Suzhou. In 1862, the descendents of Zhou moved their workshop to Shanghai, and it was counted as the top of the four famous brush workshops in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

After relocating to Shanghai, the workshop was highly praised by a group of renowned artists including Zhao Zhiqian, Ren Bonian, Wu Hufan and Wu Changshuo.

The workshop tailored the nature of their brushes to different styles of painting and calligraphy, creating a distinctive Shanghai style.

In 1956, Zhouhuchen merged over 10 well-known brush workshops, further perfecting its brush-making skills. Over more than 300 years, Zhouhuchen's brush-making skills have passed down more than 10 generations.

Zhouhuchen's distinctive craftsmanship focuses on:

1. Using different animal hairs with their particular characteristics for different styles of painting and calligraphy;

2. Tailor-making brushes for artists to meet their special needs;

3. Cherry-picking a variety of brush-making skills learned from other brush makers;

4. Matching different brush heads to different genres of painting and calligraphy.


Caosugong ink sticks. [Photo provided to Shanghai Star]


Caosugong Chinese Ink Stick Workshop was named after its founder Cao Sugong from Anhui province, who established the brand in 1667. It also topped the four famous ink workshops of the Qing dynasty. It moved to Shanghai in 1864. To date, the workshop has been passed down for 15 generations.

The design of Caosugong ink sticks came from famous artists and scholars like Ren Bonian, Wu Changshuo, Wang Yiting and Guo Moruo, who provided the ink stick designs. These masters' designs pushed Caosugong ink sticks to reach greater artistic heights.

In 1956, all the ink workshops in Shanghai merged under the Caosugong brand, and formed the nation's largest ink making company, which was later renamed the Shanghai Ink Factory and became the sole manufacturer of Shanghai-style huimo (ink made in Anhui province).

Caosugong ink prides itself in the following:

1. Caosugong created a classification standard for oil soot and it is universally recognized within the industry.

2. Caosugong solved the problem of fragility and the difficulty of molding shapes onto ink sticks.

3. Famous artists drafted designs for its ink sticks, raising their artistic and cultural value.

4. Caosugong invented a technique to make the surface of the ink stick more smooth and even, enabling ink craftsmen to imprint vivid three-dimensional designs on them.


A brush rinsing pot. [Photo provided to Shanghai Star]


In 2008, the Shanghai New World Co Ltd restructured Zhouhuchen and Caosugong, and set up the Z C Brush & Ink (Shanghai) Co Ltd.

The new company wholeheartedly serves the painting and calligraphy community, targeting upscale customers, and focusing on creating high quality products while preserving the excellent traditional craftsmanship.

Shanghai was not the biological mother of Zhouhuchen and Caosugong but it cultivated them into well-known brands. The continuity of their distinctive characteristics indicates the tolerance of Shanghai culture, according to Du Hong, managing director of the Z C Brush & Ink (Shanghai) Co Ltd.

In recent years, the company has developed more than 10 new types of brushes and ink sticks. It also launched many products by combining traditional culture and history, such as the ink stick sets of the Analects of Confucius, and one that commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Revolution of 1911.

In the coming years, the company will do more to protect ink molds, especially those handed down from ancient times. "We will clean them, repair them, further classify them, and improve their storage conditions," says Du.

To date, the company produces 750,000 brushes, up to 7 tons of ink-sticks, as well as several hundred tons of ink every year, making it the nation's largest brush and ink producer.

Feeling the impact of the e-commerce boom, the traditional Chinese brush and ink maker has now made its products available on 14 major online shopping platforms including Tmall. In September, its products will be sold on JD.com, and will be available on yihaodian.com by the end of this year.

The company also cooperates with Dongfang CJ, a TV program for family shopping which has helped the company broaden its market, expand its brand influence and increase sales.

Four treasures in the study

Writing brush

Called maobi in Chinese, this means a pen made of hair. The oldest brush discovered so far dates back to the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC). Brushes are generally made from animal hair, such as that taken from the goat, black rabbit and weasel. Brush handles are usually made from bamboo, wood, porcelain and other precious materials.

The hair of different animals will offer users different writing experiences and generate distinct brush strokes. Every brush has its specific elasticity, hardness, thickness, length, and ink absorbency.

Different brushes are used for different styles of calligraphy and painting. It’s widely believed the best brushes are made in Huzhou, Zhejiang province.

Ink stick

The original ink comes from nature, such as materials burnt by lightning, octopus ink, and graphite. Later, artificial ink was developed during the Qin and Han dynasties (221 BC- AD 220).

Modern ink sticks are generally made from a mixture of soot and resin. Soot is collected, then mixed with glue. The best ink sticks are finely grained and engraved with calligraphy and carvings.

The ink sticks held in highest regard are known as huimo, or ink sticks made in Anhui province. Containing musk, borneol and other precious aromatics of Chinese medicine, the ink sticks are not used for writing anymore, but have become collectors’ items in themselves.


Paper is one of ancient China’s four great inventions (the other three are the compass, gunpowder, and printing), and it was first developed in China in 105 AD by a man named Cai Lun from tree bark, clothes and fish nets.

The invention of paper made writing materials easier to produce and lowered the cost of writing. Prior to its invention, bamboo slips and silks were used for writing material, which only wealthy people could afford.

Paper made in Jingxian (泾县) of Anhui province was regarded as the best xuanzhi, or paper specially used for calligraphy.

Ink stone

The ink stone is used to grind the ink stick into powder and turn it into liquid ink by mixing it with water.

The first ink stone was a grinding stone. It started to have features such as a cap or standing support and carved decorations since the Han dynasty. The production of ink stones reached its zenith in the Tang and Song dynasties (AD 618-1279) with ink stones becoming extremely intricate works of art.

Ink stones from four places in China are regarded as the best and are favored by collectors. The top four are Duan yan(端砚) from Duanxi in Guangdong province, She yan (歙砚) from Shexian in Anhui province, Taohe yan (洮河砚) from the Tao River in South Gansu province, and Chengni ceramic yan (澄泥砚).

Classical Chinese scholars often have other “treasures” including brush-holders (笔架), brush-hangers (笔挂), paperweights (镇纸), the brush-rinsing pots (笔洗), the seals (图章) and seal-ink (印泥) etc.


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