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.