Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Chinese Scholar’s Studio -- Paperweights


In Asian cultures, the art of writing has assumed a much greater significance than the simple transmission of texts; calligraphy is regarded as one of the high arts. Many of the Emperors were expert calligraphers, and their writings from centuries ago are still used as models. The ability to write and draw well, and to understand classic examples of calligraphy, became part of the basic equipment of educated people.

A veritable cult grew up around the art of calligraphy, and this soon encompassed the various tools used to produce the scrolls of writing and ink paintings. The scholar’s studio became a place of incredible refinement, and the finest artists and materials were employed to create the related accoutrements. Many of these are museum pieces and out of the range of an ordinary collector, but writing utensils are so integral to Asian culture that it is possible to seek out attractive and unusual items.

To begin with, there are the Four Treasures of the scholar’s table: the writing brush; the ink-stick; the ink-stone; and the paper. Brushes held vertically are used for both writing and painting. Ink comes in solid sticks, which are ground with water on the ink-stone to produce liquid ink. There are in addition many allied items that aid in the production of calligraphy. Some of these will be covered in the future; today’s post concerns paperweights.

Chinese paperweights fall into two categories. The calligraphy type, long and thin, is used to hold down the edges of paper scrolls when displaying or painting on them, while the novelty type can take any shape and so resemble Western examples.  Most of the weights are decorated with Chinese good luck symbols and other traditional emblems.

Click on images to enlarge.
 
This leaping fish paperweight above is among my favorite examples of the calligraphy type. The design possesses great vitality, with its swirling waves, golden fish, and rocks or mountains jutting from the water. The empty spaces between the raised elements also allow it to serve as a brush rest. Interestingly, the base metal under the enamel is not brass or bronze, but copper, an unusual metal for Chinese objects. 


 
Calligraphy weights often came in sets, with one engraved design spread over the individual pieces. These three white brass bars are all orphans from various sets. The one with half a deer on it is obviously of a higher class of engraving; it is a pity that its companions have become lost.
 
Detail of the engraving. The lovely color of white brass is not easily captured in photographs.

These three weights are so handy that they are among the few objects that I have not put away. Their long shape, perfect for holding down curling edges, makes them invaluable for photographing books and paper items.


Cut from rock crystal, this paperweight also serves as a brush rest.

An iron calligraphy-style weight features ancient coins.

This poorly-photographed commemorative inscribed weight is of gray marble.
 
Another white brass paperweight, this time in the shape of a sword:



Many objects can serve as paperweights, but some are specifically made for the purpose, such as these yuan bao (money ingots) on stands. One is somewhat vintage and the other is new; obviously this design has not changed much over the years.




 What initially looks like a miniature ship's wheel is an important Buddhist symbol, cast in bronze:



  I was powerless to resist this iron lobster:


Paperweights are universal objects which transcend many boundaries of time and place. The fact they are so easily improvised using any ordinary rock or solid object has the ironic effect of making some people seek ever more lavish and costly ones. They are fun to collect because they are small, yet heavy and solid in the hand, exhibit great variety, and additionally are still useful for their original purpose. Do you have a favorite paperweight or object that you use as one, such as a stone or fossil?


All objects and photographs from the collection of the author.

26 comments:

  1. I like the idea that any scholar of repute would have needed four compulsory items: writing brush; ink-stick; ink-stone and paper. Most were suitable sites for decoration, including but not limited to calligraphy. At least the visitor knew who a real scholar was... not via the rubbish filled desks we use now.

    To the European eye, I would say the money ingots on stands are the most gorgeous to look at, and the most efficient as a paperweights.

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    1. Hello Hels, The old writing tables needed to be kept clear so that scrolls could be unrolled. They were specially made for this purpose. Still, for those who liked objects, there was an amazing amount of related paraphernalia. Also, there was nothing to stop early collectors from acquiring multiple examples--a connoisseur could have had dozens of special inkstones, brush washers, etc.

      Yuan-bao are an attractive shape, and even today there are many yuan-bao and replica antique coins cast in solid metal for use as paperweights.

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  2. What a fabulous collection--I have never heard of calligraphy paperweights before, and I really enjoyed learning about them. My favorite paperweight is heavy glass, with a california poppy design. I have som small old cast iron animals (a dog and a duck) that I like to use too.

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    1. Hello Jen, "Calligraphy paperweights" is not a standard term as far as I know, just a distinction I find useful. Spherical glass paperweights were used also, and some were made in China, but either are not as typical or are very expensive. Your iron dog and duck sound adorable; often small metal animals here are from sets of weights meant to be used with scales.

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  3. Like Jen I had never heard of calligraphy paperweights before.

    I like the fact that they were not of a standard patten but could be made into a variety of shapes and designs.

    While I can see why it would have been hard to resist that Lobster, I particularly like the bronze Dharma Wheel. I think that that would have made a nice weight as well as allowing the calligrapher time for some reflective meditation in between writing...

    Kirk

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    1. Hello Kirk, Europe and America also have lots of paperweights to choose from. In addition to the Baccarat and other fine types of round glass weights, there are also the souvenir and advertising ones. Some of my favorites are architecture-themed.

      I agree with you that symbolic imagery can take these items beyond the everyday, and serve as reminders of religious and cultural heritage.

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  4. Dear Jim - a very interesting post explaining the different types of paper weights used in calligraphy. I would never have guessed that the long ruler shaped ones were weights, but having explained that they held the scrolls in place it is obvious. Those three although not a matching set are very attractive.
    I am with you on the lobster. My eldest son has a fetching bronze crab which always attracts my eye.
    I only have glass paper weights which I do not use as such.

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    1. Hello Rosemary,
      I know what you mean about not using paperweights as such. Although as mentioned I use the brass ones for delicate work, for uses like sorting out piles of papers, I most often resort to mineral specimens that are lying about. I have even descended to the use of canned goods.

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  5. Sadly, I never had the chance to attend school in China or Vietnam. I would have loved to learn calligraphy in those countries. Never too late, right?

    Very interesting, Jim. I've never seen or heard of white brass. I love the etchings on those weights. They remind me of Chinese scholarly paintings of nature. Wonderful collection. Many thanks for sharing ~ Loi

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    1. Hello Loi, I'm sure that with your talents you would be a natural for calligraphy.

      I think that white brass would go well in your interiors. It is difficult to photograph its true color and sheen, but at its best it has a soft, off-white look (similar to the color of American Flying Eagle cents or 19th century nickels, if that comparison helps). The tinge can range from brassy to a light pewter-gray, but always with its own quality.

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  6. I quite often come across scroll paperweights and brush rests in my auction travels and I am tempted to acquire one/some, but have never done so. There was a brush rest that was turquoise with a gilded base, and the combination of the colours was quite exquisite. Do you have a museum attached to your residence?!

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    1. Hello Columnist, That turquoise brush rest sounds like a beauty. As you have noticed, the sky is the limit when it comes to the quality of these items.

      I unfortunately do not possess a museum, but perhaps if I put together all my architectural fragments, I might be able to come up with something. My real secret is having an extra bedroom available for storage.

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  7. Dear Jim,

    Thank you for a very informative posting — and for sharing a unique collection. Sometimes paperweights are so decorative that one forgets that they really have a utilitarian purpose! I spend much time working with rolls of tracing paper which is always curling up on either side, and paperweights are a must in my studio (though I must admit that sometimes they're makeshift ones). The brass bars would be my choice for that activity, and I'm sure were prefered for the calligraphy scrolls.

    There's one paperweight I'm on the lookout for, though the chance of ever finding it is narrowing. I've always been attracted to the iron paperweights that newspaper sellers used at outdoor stands. They were often cast with a newspaper or magazine's name, and were well worn.

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    1. Hello Mark, I can imagine that with your profession paperweights would take on an added importance, and that you would select for shape and function, not just appearance.

      You made the newsstand weights sound so interesting, I looked them up and found this article: http://lttds.blogspot.tw/2010/10/last-monitor-available-now-5-issue-of.html

      Good luck in finding some. Once your eyes have been opened to a certain type of object, they sometimes turn up in unexpected places.

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    2. Hi again, Jim - The type of paperweight I was talking about looked like this:

      http://www.etsy.com/listing/21854260/vintage-time-paper-weight

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    3. Mark, The Time weight is really cool. I'll have something further to say about this comment in a future post! Jim

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  8. Dear Jim
    Very interesting post and wonderful collection of paperweights !
    I am thinking that they used all these and they gave such great
    importance in calligraphy .Now , they are for decoration .
    Have a nice day !
    Olympia

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    1. Hello Olympia, You are right that these are mostly for decoration now, but you also might be surprised how many people, both Asian and Western, still take up calligraphy and can use these paperweights, and also Mark's comment above shows how a graphic designer can also use weights like these. You have a nice day, too!

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  9. Dear Jim,
    What a wonderful post! As you can imagine, I adore learning about the writing tools of cultures around the world. I particularly love your phrase: "The scholar’s studio became a place of incredible refinement"--such an evocative idea, isn't it? The paperweights you've shared are indeed beautifully refined tools, and I'm sure a great joy to use. You've inspired me to look more carefully for calligraphy paperweights-- their design would be incredibly useful in the bindery, and would provide inspiration for continual refinement as well...brilliant!
    Thank you, Jim, for an inspiring post.
    Warm regards,
    Erika

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    1. Hello Erika, This is kind praise indeed from an expert like you. I find it interesting how Kirk's remark on their religious/philosophical inspiration balances your observation on their aesthetic and refinement-inducing potential, truly a high yield from such small objects.

      About their usefulness for your work, please see my comment below to Yvonne about their weight, although they can be sought in many sizes.

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  10. Hi Jim,

    That's a wonderful collection. My favorite is the leaping fish paperweight--I like the colors and its playful quality. Is that glaze on the outside? And I'm curious as to how much these paperweights weigh on average. The only object I use for a paperweight is the tape dispenser on my desk, and I think I should invest into one as charming as your collection.

    Yvonne

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    1. Hello Yvonne, I love that fish one too, that is why it had to be first, so it would form the thumbnail for the post! The colors are enamel glaze. I do wonder if there could be some additional use, such as to cover an incense burner, as you can see that the fish's mouth is open, and I believe that this goes through to the base.

      That is a very apt question about their weight--how can one write an article on paperweights and not discuss this most salient characteristic? I checked the three bar-shaped ones. The one with a deer weighs 3.6 oz (102g); the smaller one 2.6 oz (75g); and the largest one 4.2 oz (118g).

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  11. Dear Jim,
    So these are your personal collection items? You leave that a bit vague in the story... They are all very precious though.
    This only once more underlines the importance of the written word and all the entourage used for doing so in an artful way. Each culture brought its own art for writing. We do have some special paperweights but none like yours.
    Have a great weekend,
    Mariette

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    1. Hello Mariette, Yes, these are all items I have collected since I came to Taiwan. In the future, in addition to emphasizing the items themselves, I will try to add in the process of seeking them out.

      There are so many writing collectibles from many cultures--Europe/America has inkwells and bottles, quills, fountain pens, etc., while the ancient world provides styluses, scribe's palettes, hieroglyphs,etc.--all fascinating and all unique to a specific time and place.

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  12. Great article!

    Now I can tell my partner that all my stuff are paperweights!

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    1. Hello Coulda shoulda, Good idea! My paperweight collection has also just suddenly grown to many thousands.

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