What is a Xuan Brush?
Xuan brushes (宣笔 Xuān bǐ) are one of the most famous Chinese brush types used for both Calligraphy and Chinese painting.
They are called Xuan because they are made in Xuan Cheng, the same area as Xuan paper, so naturally the two are often mentioned and used together.
Xuan brushes are recorded in history since at least 23BC and were sent as tribute to the imperial courts since the Tang dynasty.
Like all chinese brushes, Xuan brushes feature a fine point and a thick middle section which holds ink and allows master artists to produce a wide variety of strokes and textures from the same brush.
Xuan brush workshop
Master Xu has been making Xuan Brushes since 1976 and has made over one million brushes since then. He is very proud of making brushes because the brushes facilitate people’s creativity and have been used by so many artists to produce so much artwork.
Making Xuan brushes is a lot of hard work and does not make much money: there are over 200 steps in the process of making a Xuan brush and all the steps have to be done by hand. Because of this, very few young people would like to learn this skill now.
Xuan Brush is made with very strictly controlled raw materials which are individually selected.
Hair: The most important element for a brush is the hair. All the hairs have to be animal hair. Different hairs normally have different effects and, therefore, are used for different purposes, for example,
羊毫 Yang Hao Wool brush is very popular. Wool brushes are made from soft absorbent Goat hair and can hold a lot of ink. Premium wool brushes are made from aged hair which has lost fat and become even more absorbent. A good soft wool brush with a fat head holds a lot of ink, it is easy to use, durable and convenient for painting and calligraphy. It performs very well for painting flowers, leaves, water, animals, etc
Wool brush requires good control of wrist and strength. Therefore, it is more difficult than weasel hair brush for beginners to control.
Pure wool without impurities makes a naturally soft brush. Goat hair is widely used since Yuan Dynasty as a perfect material for making brushes.
- Firstly, wool is thin and straight;
- secondly, the top of wool hair is round;
- thirdly, wool is neither soft nor hard;
- fourth, wool has different lengths;
- fifth, wool has different thicknesses;
- sixth, wool is a cheap but high quality material compared with any other fine animal hairs.
Older goat hair is stiffer but wool from young goat makes a fine transparent tip. Due to the variety of lengths and thicknesses, the wool can be used to make different types of brushes.
狼毫 Lang Hao Wolf brush (Weasel hair) “Wolf” brushes use hair from the Chinese “Yellow mouse wolf” 黄鼠狼 – a local name for the Siberian weasel. Premium Dong Lang Hao “Winter Wolf” brushes use the extra thick hairs produced in the winter in the cold and snowy Liao Ning, Ji Ling, Heilongjiang provinces of North East China. Because of the climate the weasels from this area grow longer, stronger, thicker hair. The best weasel hair is fine and glistening, smooth and elastic and can be used to make large and small brushes.
Weasel hair is not as quite stiff as rabbit hair but stiffer than wool and combination brushes, and so preferred for detail work and regular script calligraphy (楷书 Kaishu). Weasel hair has lower absorption rate than wool and the hair is strong & flexible. Therefore, it performs very well on painting dry effects and ‘bone’ effects and for example for painting trunks with dry ink such as su ink. Wolf brushes are easier to control than Wool brushes and so are also recommended for beginners.
兼毫 Jian Hao Combination brush: combines the stiffness of 狼毫 Lang Hao Wolf brush (Weasel hair) and the softness and absorbency of the 羊毫 Yang Hao Wool brush (Goat hair). The core (60-65%) is made from the stiffer weasel hair and the outer layer (35-40%) is of the softer goat hair. Very popular with both painters and calligraphers.
貂毫 Diao Hao Marten brush: the marten hair is sharp but very soft so when you use it with ink the effect is elegant, clean and sophisticated. However the hair is brittle and doesn’t last as long, this is its biggest disadvantage.
獾毫 Huan Hao Badger brush: the surface of the hair is coarse so it absorbs a lot of ink, the brush is good for both smooth writing and expressing different effects. This brush type is often known by its chinese name 石獾 Shi Huan “Stone Badger” or sometimes Water Badger, actually local names for the crab-eating mongoose (Herpestes urva) common in SE Asia.
紫毫 Zi Hao Black rabbit brush: there are actually two types of hair used:
- Shuang Bai hair is the white hair from Rabbit’s back and neck area which is very soft and often used for the outer layer of the brush.
- Zi Hao, or sword hair is a black purple. Zi Hao is longer than normal rabbit hair, it is strong and flexible. Therefore, it belongs to the premium level of brush hair. Zi Hao is so rare and valuable that every 1000 rabbits fur can only make 80 premium Zi Hao brushes. This hair is perfect to make big brush Da Lían Bi. The good hair can make the big brush strong, flexible, and easy to control. A pure Zi Hao black rabbit hair brush is soft and bulbous, if mixed with white rabbit hair is also strong and sharp.
The best rabbit hair is collected from September to January when the hair is thick while not too hard nor too soft: in spring and summer, rabbit hairs are too soft to be used to make brush. The best rabbit hair is from the southeast of Xuan County, 15 kilometres from the city centre. Sometimes, different rabbits hairs are used in combination to create a perfect brush. Rabbit hair from northern China is strong and hard; while rabbit hair from south is soft. Hard hair is strong and enduring, but the writing is too masculine. Soft hair is easy to use in the beginning but difficult to create strength in the writing. Therefore, some people use the hard rabbit hair from North to make the centre of the brush, the soft hair from South to make the outside part of the brush centre, and in the end the very soft white Shuang Bai hair is used for the exterior part of the brush. By doing such a complex combination of hairs, the brush makes the best of each types of hairs’ advantages while avoiding any disadvantages.
In the Tang dynasty the poet Baijuyi wrote a poem on the “Black rabbit hair brush” which describes its features: ”紫毫笔，尖如锥二兮利如刀。江南石上有老兔，吃竹饮泉生紫毫。宣城之人采为笔，千万毛中选一毫。每岁宣城进笔试，紫毫之价如金贵“
Black rabbit hair brush is as sharp as a needle, as sharp as a knife. In south China there is an old rabbit which lives on bamboo and spring water and grows black hair. In Xuan county people use this hair to make brush, it is so selective only 1 hair in thousands can be used to make this brush. Every year when Xuan county prepares brushes for the emperor, the black rabbit hair is as valuable as gold.”
Since the black rabbit hair is particularly expensive, normally a combination Weasel/Wool brush is used as an alternative.
In English we might call the animal a Hare rather than Rabbit, but since it causes confusion to talk about the Hair of the Hare, normally the word Rabbit is used.
Other brush types: The types above are the most common and popular materials for high quality brushes. Additionally and historically, many other animal hairs such as cat hair, horse hair, bird feather, etc. have been used to make brushes. In some places in China, it is also a tradition to use new born baby’s hair to make brush. However, this type of brush is mostly only a collectors item rather than an artist’s tool, because baby’s hair is too soft and thin for practical use.
Shaft: normally the shaft of Xuan brush is made of wood or bamboo, but other materials can also be used, and historical collections include shafts made from jade, ceramic, ivory, bone, glass or a hardwood such as Guibourtia, sometimes mistakenly called African Rosewood, but in fact is the same chinese tree used to make musical instruments such as Chinese Zheng. Inkston brushes are made with bamboo or wood shafts.
The perfect Xuan brush is ‘sharp, neat, round, and flexible’:
Sharp: the brush tip should have the appearance of a sharp point, so the brush can be used to do detailed drawing and writing.
It’s easy to check a new brush but you can also check an older brush by moistening it: a good brush should still come together into a sharp point when wet.
Neat: when you open the brush hairs, all the hairs should make a neat edge. If the hairs are neat, the brush can spread ink on the paper evenly.
This is difficult to check on a new pen since this requires the brush to be opened out but new brushes are glued to a point until first use.
Round: the end of brush pen body should be round cylinder and the hairs should be packed inside the penholder tightly and evenly, so that there is enough tension to hold shape when writing. If the hair is insufficient the brush would be weak and hard to control.
- Flexible: the right balance between softness and stiffness: the tip of the brush should be flexible so that the writing/ drawing can be smooth and fluid, while the brush retains enough stiffness to be able to control it. Wolf hair and wool is relatively flexible and springy, that is to say it bends easily when you are painting and springs back into place when you lift the brush. This allows for strong effects when writing.
These are referred to in Chinese as the four virtues of the brush, to be taken into account when selecting a brush. Of course the end result is also the most important test: the quality of the brush will directly affect the painting.
The brush also needs to be chosen for the intended use: to write very small chinese characters you need a fine brush with a very fine tip that can turn easily.
Before use, please rinse in warm water until soft. If the hair is out of place you can straighten it out once soft. Excess water can be removed before painting, for example by blotting with absorbent paper. You may also hang the brush for 10 minutes after rinsing, to dry and straighten naturally (not many people actually do this).
After use please rinse with water and leave to dry. Don’t use solvents, just warm water.
Don’t dry in the sun. If you have a Brush stand that’s ideal to hang the pen to dry and keep its shape. If not, don’t panic, any dry place will do, but to preserve the brush well, please not in a jar, not in water and not in direct sunlight. Do not put the cap back on after use, allow the brush to dry!
Do not lick or put in the mouth! Not only is this not good for the brush, but also some paints are toxic!
Before first use, you need to rinse off the glue that is used in storage. Use clean warm water to soak the brush and gently rub and open the hairs to wash off the glue.
Don’t worry if the glue doesn’t all come out straight away, you only need to get about 50% out to get the brush moving and be able to use it, the rest will come out gradually from the rinsing of normal use.
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